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.
David Pozen: The tax-code shift that’s changing liberal activism
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.”