Monday, February 19, 2001

Week of 02/19/2001

Rendering Unto Caesar
- by David Matthews 2

In the New Testament, Jesus was asked whether it was lawful to pay tax to the emperor. The question was asked by the Pharisees in order to trap Jesus to confess to being some kind of insurrectionist. In responding to the question, Jesus asked for a coin used to pay the tax. He was given a Roman coin, which he held up high and asked whose image it was on that coin. The answer came back "Caesar’s!" Jesus then replied "Then render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s.. but render unto the Lord, that which is the Lord’s."

Now fast forward about two thousand years…

Followers of the Indianapolis Baptist Church watched in sadness and anger as federal agents marched into their building, removed their few protesters there, and seized the building.

Why, you ask?

Simple.. they failed to render unto Caesar.

The Reverend Greg Dixon, leader of the church, declared back in the early 1980’s that his church did not have to withhold any taxes for their employees. The reverend believed that since the church itself was tax-exempt, the men and women who work for that church were equally tax-exempt.

The federal government, however, saw things differently. And after almost two decades of billing the church for back taxes and interest, agents of the Internal Revenue Service acted on February 13th, seizing the church and shutting it down.

I know some conservatives, and certainly the bible-thumpers, are considering this action to be yet another instance of the federal government persecuting religious groups. I know if you only knew about the church being seized for taxes owed, you’d react just like the conservatives would want you to. But there’s more to this story than the conservatives and bible-thumpers would have you believe.

Yes, churches have traditionally been tax-exempt. The rationalization behind that has been that the churches have traditionally operated on the charity of others. Of course, the wealth of certain churches (the Vatican comes to mind) would put that premise to doubt. But for the most part, the local parish would be running solely on the generosity of its parishioners.

So what happens when the church becomes too big for the sole pastor to run by himself? Well, there are two choices.. the first would be to solicit volunteers from the congregation to spend their time helping out the church. Of course, that would mean that people would have to take time out of their schedules and work out of the goodness of their hearts. That’s nice for a bake sale or a car wash, or perhaps helping with the Sunday services, but not good on the weekdays when the rest of the work is trying to get the bills paid. The second choice would be to hire people to work at the church.

Reverend Dixon chose the second option, and in doing so he transformed the church into a place of employment… where money was exchanged for services rendered.

And guess who’s name was on that money? Caesar’s.. or in this case, the United States of America.

What part about this did the Reverend Dixon not understand?

Oh sure, Reverend Dixon tried to excuse this by saying that the people who worked for him were ministers, not employees. But if that were the case, why did they get paid?

When Jesus sent his apostles out into the world, he gave them explicit instructions not to carry any purse or any money. If money was given to them, it was to be given to the poor and needy. Jesus believed that a rich man would never enter the Kingdom of God. That’s the whole basis of Christianity’s stance on poverty. It also meant that the apostles would not have to pay any of Rome’s taxes, since they did not carry anything that "belonged" to Caesar.

And let’s get brutally honest here.. it has long been the belief of the United States government that all money ultimately belonged to the government, and that the people were using it only at their discretion. That’s why they believe it can be seized at any time using asset forfeiture laws. That’s why those in government also believe that money can be taxed an infinite number of times and in an infinite number of ways.

Other churches who hired people followed the same employment laws that the Indianapolis Baptist Church flaunted. They knew that as long as they paid their workers in Caesar’s coins, those coins could be taxed. Why was it that this one church felt they were somehow above the law?

While we’re on the issue of church and state, let’s also get a few things straight about that tax-exempt status the churches have long since enjoyed. The very notion that a church can be active in politics while enjoying a tax-free ride strikes at the very heart of the abuse of power religion has played in all of human history; from a "converted" Roman Empire, to the corrupt cardinals who ran France during the childhood reign of King Louis the 14th, to even the conflicts of today between India and Pakistan and the mass-slaughter that was once Yugoslavia. In all of those instances, religion has played an influencing role.

It’s one thing to be concerned about the affairs of the world around you, but religion works best when it appeals to one individual at a time, not done in bulk through government. However, if those in religion want to get involved in government, then this commentator says with conviction what George Carlin said for laughs.. take away their tax-exempt status and let them pay their admission price like the rest of us.

Reverend Dixon tried to extend the church’s tax-exempt status to the people working for him, and he failed. He tried to carry his argument through three presidents and one regime, and he failed. And even as agents were putting his rigid body on a hand-truck and hauling his butt out of the church along with the six or so other protesters, he felt that he was still in the right. He was not.

The sad part is that the people who would be fighting the hardest for our freedoms are picking and choosing the wrong battles to fight for. This is not one of those battles.

Though their convictions are admirable, Reverend Dixon and his parishioners are not fighting on behalf of the freedom of religion, nor are they fighting in defiance of a government gone mad. They are simply fighting to skirt tax laws for their own benefit. They are far from the patriots they claim to be.

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