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How We All Pay For the Huge Tax Privileges Granted to Religion -- It's Time to Tax the Church

By some estimates, the property tax exemption alone removes $100 billion in property from U.S. tax rolls, and that's only the tip of the iceberg.

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Combined with a near-total lack of government scrutiny, the privileges granted to religion have enabled megachurch ministers to live fantastically luxurious lifestyles. An investigation by Sen. Chuck Grassley in 2009 gave a rare public glimpse of how powerful preachers spend the cash they rake in from their flocks: jewelry, luxury clothing, cosmetic surgery, offshore bank accounts, multimillion-dollar lakefront mansions, a fleet of private jets, flights to Hawaii and Fiji, and most famously in the case of Joyce Meyer, a $23,000 marble-topped commode. Meyer's ministry alone is estimated to have an annual take of around $124 million.

Most of these Elmer Gantry-types preach a theology called the " prosperity gospel." The basic idea of this is that God wants to shower you with riches, but only if you first "plant a seed of faith" by giving your church as much money as you possibly can, trusting that God will repay you tenfold. (The typical ask is for 10 percent of your annual income -- gross, not net; people who tithe based on their net income hate the baby Jesus.) Naturally, this idea has made some churches very, very rich, while making a large number of poor, desperate people even poorer.

One might think this scam would only work for so long before people start to realize that giving all their money away isn't making them rich. But the pastors who preach it have a very convenient and clever rationalization: when supernatural wealth fails to materialize, they tell their followers that it must be their own fault, that they're harboring some secret sin that's preventing God from fulfilling his promises.

But beyond the prosperity gospel, we're now witnessing a new and even more brazen idea spreading among the American religious right: that the poor should accept their lot without complaint, and that calling for a stronger social safety net or advocating higher taxes on the rich is committing the sin of envy. For example, here's Watergate felon Chuck Colson, who's found a profitable after-prison career as a born-again right-wing pundit, denouncing the poor for wanting a better life for themselves:

Despite this, many people insist on soaking the well-off because... what they want is to see their better-off neighbors knocked down a peg. That's how envy works.

Thomas Aquinas defined envy as "sorrow for another's good." It is the opposite of pity. And it is one of the defining sins of our times. 

(I would guess that by Colson's standard, some of the authors of the Bible would also be committing the sin of envy with their denunciations of the rich.)

The right-wing Family Research Council has also joined in, calling for its followers to pray that God stifles the Occupy Wall Street protests; its president, Tony Perkins, has said that  Jesus "endorses the principles of business and the free market". And then there's this billboard, which asserts that protesters' demands for health insurance and higher corporate tax rates violate the biblical commandment against coveting. I would've thought this was a bizarre joke if not for the fact that so many powerful right-wing Christians are openly saying the same thing.

On its surface, Christianity seems like the least likely religion for this theology of the rich and powerful to take root. The Bible, after all, denounces wealth and praises poverty in no uncertain terms. In fact, Jesus unequivocally commands that Christians should sell all their possessions, give the money to the poor, and live as wandering mendicant evangelists. The famous analogy about a camel going through the eye of a needle was a parable intended to forcefully make the point that it's almost impossible for a rich person to get into Heaven -- and by the Bible's standard, millions of modern Christians are very rich indeed:

 
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