Persecution Or Privilege? The Real Status Of American Houses of Worship

If you believe the fundamentalists, they’re merely defending themselves against an overwhelming tide of secularist persecution.

The Religious Right loves its battles.

The war on Christmas. The war on marriage. Wars on schools, on prayer, on the sanctity of life – we’ve heard countless times that a culture war rages in America. If you believe the fundamentalists, they’re merely defending themselves against an overwhelming tide of secularist persecution.

But a recent report by the Council for Secular Humanism and the University of Tampa confirms that this persecution is really a myth. In fact, the report estimates that the federal government subsidizes churches to the tune of at least $71 billion per year.

The Washington Post called these numbers a “lowball,” and estimates the real number is probably much higher thanks to local tax subsidies, sales tax subsidies and fund-raising subsidies, among other benefits. When these benefits are considered the number is closer to $82.5 billion per year.

That doesn’t look much like persecution. Rather, it looks like quite a comfortable position – one might even call it privilege.  And although these subsidies don’t prefer one religious group over another, many of them aren’t extended to non-religious groups.

According to the researchers, this isn’t likely to change soon. Despite recent legal action, subsidies for religious groups remain popular, and our elected officials continue to propose legislation that would funnel public money to subsidize to houses of worship for renovations and other repairs.

At Americans United, we’ve consistently opposed direct taxpayer support of religious groups and their project. We believe these attempts are violations of the wall of separation.

When they’re successful, these legislative maneuvers have visible consequences.  Researchers further noted that it is “likely” these subsidies are “propping up religion” and that they provide the financial support necessary for religious groups to fund lobbying efforts and to consume and produce media. These activities are intended to profoundly affect public policy and encourage social change.

The conclusion is obvious. The numbers tell us that instead of persecuting churches, the government is actually providing them with substantial support, direct and indirect.

Churches do, of course, have the right to hold certain beliefs. They’re also allowed to promote those beliefs within the appropriate channels. And many congregations do perform admirable works of community service. However, it’s always been our position that these works need to remain privately funded. Many religious leaders agree with us on that.

In a cultural climate increasingly defined by ideological conflict, the fundamentalist persecution complex is a valuable weapon. People who believe they’re under attack are desperate people. It’s fear-mongering at its worst—and the fear is totally misplaced. Churches aren’t under attack by the state, and secularism doesn’t pose an immediate threat to religion.

Fortunately, some religious leaders recognize this. At the Edinburgh Book Festival earlier this month, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, noted, “I am always very uneasy when people sometimes in this country or the United States talk about persecution of Christians or rather believers.”

The reason, Williams says, is that Western Christians simply aren’t persecuted.

“I think we are made to feel uncomfortable at times,” he said. “We’re made to feel as if we’re idiots -- perish the thought! But that kind of level of not being taken very seriously or being made fun of; I mean for goodness sake, grow up.”

Williams is correct. If the Religious Right needs an example of real persecution, they need look no further than the recent destruction of Coptic churches in Egypt.

But the situation is quite different in the United States. Far from being persecuted, American Christians enjoy religious freedom, and religious groups are able to tap into a lucrative network of tax breaks, preferential treatment and “faith-based” support.

It’s high time for the Religious Right to set the martyr complex aside and declare an end to its culture war.