Is the State Church Coming?

Last week, presidential hopeful Beto O’Rourke said outright that if he is elected president, he will work to eliminate the tax-exempt status for churches that hold traditional views of gender and sexuality. And O’Rourke is not the only candidate taking aim at groups that defend age-old beliefs about marriage and gender. His Democratic rival Cory Booker promised to punish religious organizations that do not celebrate same-sex “marriages,” though he did not specify the elimination of their tax-exempt status.

For faithful Catholics, this is a grim prospect. We have seen what happens to the Church when a secular government attempts to control doctrine and mandate certain teachings; just look at the tragic example of China. There, two churches—one that submitted to God first and foremost, and one that submitted to the godless communist government first and foremost—coexisted for decades. In exchange for its loyalty to communism, the politically correct state church received government protection and little perks here and there. The true Church, however, was persecuted and oppressed.

The story does not end well. Just last year, the Vatican caved and extended its official recognition to the politically correct church’s state-appointed bishops, leaving the longsuffering leaders of the true Church out in the cold. The moral is this: when governments can exert power over the Church—whether determining doctrine, picking bishops, or enforcing certain rules—the preaching of the Gospel suffers.

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Now, the likelihood that O’Rourke will ever be in the position to fulfill his promise is, to put it charitably, slim. Even Democratic voters might understandably forget that O’Rourke is running for the Democratic nomination in 2020. O’Rourke’s atmospheric rise, starting with the 2018 Senate elections that threatened for a moment to upset Senator Ted Cruz in the long-red state of Texas, has since fizzled. Today, his campaign seems to consist mostly of trying to stake out the most aggressive positions possible (e.g., his promise to forcibly confiscate automatic weapons if elected).

Beyond this, even left-wing groups are condemning O’Rourke’s proposal, saying that his plan makes him a straw man for everything conservatives fear about the Left’s agenda. These groups rightly point out that there are serious constitutional problems with eliminating tax exemptions for religious groups based on one particular teaching. They recognize that doing so would in effect establish a state religion—one of sexual licentiousness based on the tenets of identity theory.

If we have learned anything in the four years since Obergefell v. Hodges made same-sex “marriage” legal across the nation, it’s that identity theory is nothing less than a cult. Identity theory claims that each person’s most basic responsibility—and his only path to happiness—is to explore and live out every element of his “identity,”  his desires, as freely as possible. This claim is not merely a lifestyle choice: it has religious power and scope, and it cannot tolerate the existence of rival cults or creeds.

O’Rourke and Booker did not pull their plan to treat traditional religious organizations as second-class out of thin air. The roots of the proposal are in the oral arguments in Obergefell. In his argument for legalizing same-sex “marriage,” then-solicitor general Donald Verrilli openly admitted that tax-exempt status for religious colleges and universities that uphold traditional views of marriage was “going to be an issue.”

Of course, in the days following Obergefell, LGBT activists insisted the decision would not affect religious people, and that everyone was now free to practice marriage however they wished. They pointed to Justice Anthony Kennedy’s majority opinion in Obergefell, in which he assured religious Americans that they would still be able to “advocate” for their belief in marriage as being between one man and one woman. They assured religious and conservative Americans that the decision in Obergefell would in no way compromise our First Amendment rights to freedom of religion, speech, and conscience.

However, in the four short years since, religious Americans have been forced to realize that this was simply a lie. Justice Kennedy’s word “advocate” is dangerously vague. In the wake of Obergefell, religious Americans have found that, while they may indeed still retain the right to think that marriage is defined only as a lifelong relationship between one man and one woman, they have less and less freedom to speak of and act on this belief. Chief Justice John Roberts warned about this in his dissent from Obergefell:

The majority graciously suggests that religious believers may continue to “advocate” and “teach” their views of marriage… The First Amendment guarantees, however, the freedom to “exercise” religion. Ominously, that is not a word the majority uses… Unfortunately, people of faith can take no comfort in the treatment they receive from the majority today.

In the past four years, religious Americans across the nation have come face to face, in increasingly brutal ways, with the consequences of Obergefell’s cavalier attitude towards the First Amendment. They have dealt with years of litigation and public abuse from state officials, personal attacks from the state attorney general, and illegal bans from the public square. American business owners, non-profit leaders, and artists have found themselves pushed out of business, called Nazis and haters by the media, and forced into extended, costly legal battles because of their belief that marriage is the union between one man and one woman.

Now, in 2019, two Democratic presidential hopefuls feel that it is in their best interest as candidates to explicitly advocate punishing religious organizations that uphold traditional views of marriage.

We should not be surprised that this triggers a storm of protest: No such thing would ever be permitted in America! The Establishment Clause promises religious groups that they will be free to exercise their beliefs without undue government interference! These are the same spluttered assurances we heard in 2015. That turned out to be a smokescreen.

Be warned: the same cult that has compromised our First Amendment rights to freedom of speech, conscience, and religion will not hesitate to compromise the Establishment Clause. Faithful Catholics would do well to consider the possibility that churches upholding orthodoxy will face active government opposition and penalties—the least of which, as our brothers and sisters in China have learned, would be the loss of their tax-exempt status.

Photo credit: Juli Hansen/


  • Jane Clark Scharl

    Jane Clark Scharl is a senior contributor at Crisis. Her work has previously appeared in National Review, The American Conservative, and The Intercollegiate Review.

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