Democrats Are Going to Regret Beto’s Stance on Conservative Churches

The candidate seems not to realize that eliminating tax exemptions for certain religious institutions would be catastrophic.

Beto O'Rourke greets attendees at the LGBTQ town hall.
Mike Blake / Reuters

The issue of gay rights and recognition and acceptance of the LGBTQ community has moved at warp speed—in political terms anyway—this past decade.

“I believe marriage is between a man and a woman. I am not in favor of gay marriage,” said the candidate Barack Obama in 2008.

At Thursday night’s nationally televised forum on LGBTQ rights, candidate Beto O’Rourke showed how far, and how quickly, the Democratic Party has moved. The former Texas congressman caused quite a stir when he said he would support revoking the tax-exempt status of religious institutions—colleges, churches, and charities—if they opposed same-sex marriage.

Though his swift “yes” in response to the CNN moderator Don Lemon’s question received an enthusiastic response from the Los Angeles audience, much of America—including those blue-hued states—might see troubling ramifications of this that go well beyond O’Rourke’s applause line.

The candidate’s view isn’t entirely new to Democrats. It echoes, for example, then–Solicitor General Donald Verrilli’s concession during his oral argument in Obergefell v. Hodges in 2015 that the tax-exempt status of Christian colleges and universities who hold traditional views of marriage was “going to be an issue.” And it aligns with the Harvard law professor Mark Tushnet’s policy recommendation to take a “hard line” with religious conservatives because, after all, “trying to be nice to the losers didn’t work well after the Civil War,” and “taking a hard line seemed to work reasonably well in Germany and Japan after 1945.”

Even so, O’Rourke’s comments mark the first time a Democratic presidential candidate has overtly endorsed stripping the tax-exempt status of religious organizations who hold conservative views about marriage and sexuality. This feels very much like the candidate Obama’s “cling to guns and religion” comment at a 2008 San Francisco fundraiser that became first an attack line used by Hillary Clinton and then a well-worn conservative talking point that the would-be president was aloof and out of touch with small-town America. But more troubling than the rhetoric is where it leads. And for that, let me offer three suggestions to people with skill sets I lack: one for pollsters, one for journalists, and one for policy analysts.

First, pollsters should ask voters about O’Rourke’s comments and the issue of tax-exempt status, both now and in the exit polls for the 2020 presidential election. We can be certain this issue will be used in Republican political ads, especially in congressional districts that Obama won in 2012, but that Trump won in 2016. And I suspect this issue and O’Rourke’s framing of it will lead to increased turnout of evangelicals in states that matter to Democrats, such as Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. O’Rourke’s comment may quickly fall out of the national news cycle, but it won’t be forgotten among churches, religious organizations, and religious voters. And if the Democrats lose in 2020, this issue and their handling of it will likely be a contributing factor. That will be true regardless of who the eventual Republican or Democratic candidates are.

Second, journalists should ask O’Rourke and every other Democratic candidate how this policy position would affect conservative black churches, mosques and other Islamic organizations, and orthodox Jewish communities, among others. It is difficult to understand how Democratic candidates can be “for” these communities—advocating tolerance along the way—if they are actively lobbying to put them out of business.

Third, policy analysts should assess the damage O’Rourke’s proposal would cause to the charitable sector. O’Rourke’s stance—if played out to its end—would decimate the charitable sector. It is certainly the case that massive amounts of government funding flow through religious charitable organizations in the form of grants and tax exemptions. But anyone who thinks this is simply a pass-through that can be redirected to government providers or newly established charitable networks that better conform to Democratic orthodoxies is naive to the realities of the charitable sector.

During a 2015 summit at Georgetown University that focused on caring for the poor, then-President Obama and the Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam showed a similar lack of understanding. Putnam asserted that “most organized religion has … been entirely focused on issues of homosexuality and contraception and not at all focused on issues of poverty.” Obama added that “fighting poverty” for Christians is often seen as just “nice to have.” As the New York Times columnist Ross Douthat observed at the time: “It would be too kind to call these comments wrong; they were ridiculous.”

In fact, religious individuals and organizations spend billions of their own dollars in the charitable sector and donate hundreds of millions of hours of service in global and domestic regions where the social fabric is the most distressed. They have spent generations building institutions, infrastructure, and networks that enable large-scale responses to natural disasters and other calamities. When hurricanes and tornadoes devastate entire communities, churches and religious organizations mobilize thousands of volunteers and many tons of relief supplies. Ending the tax-exempt status of these organizations would substantially weaken the charitable sector, which would result in more people suffering. Policy analysts should make that case evident so that voters can fully evaluate Democratic claims that the party cares for the least of these.

There is an alternative to O’Rourke’s approach, one that makes far more sense for the future of our country and the health of our public dialogue, and one that candidates across the political spectrum ought to endorse. As I argue in my book, Confident Pluralism, and have also written about elsewhere, the federal tax exemption has long facilitated a diverse range of beliefs and practices, including some that we love and some that we loathe. Civil society works best when we understand these realities and the pragmatic choices all of us make to live together in spite of our differences. Part of coexisting in a diverse society means not only tolerating but sometimes partnering with those with whom we most disagree.

When the next tornado hits the Midwest or the next hurricane hits Puerto Rico, I will gladly welcome the atheists and the National Guard to help in the relief efforts. But I’ll want the religious people there, too, through organizations such as Catholic Charities, the Southern Baptists’ North American Mission Board, the Salvation Army, and World Relief. Our nation’s politicians can choose to make that possibility more or less likely with their rhetoric and policies in the years to come. Threatening the loss of tax exemption to hundreds of thousands of religious organizations, including many that serve the most vulnerable in our society, is not the way to go.