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The Story: An increasing number of Americans say that churches and other houses of worship do not contribute to solving important social problems.

The Background: According to a recent Pew Research survey, the number of Americans who say churches contribute “some” or a “great deal” to solving important social problems has declined substantially over the past eight years.

While three-quarters of Americans (75 percent) responded “some/great deal” in 2008, fewer than one in five (19 percent) now say churches contribute a “great deal,” and fewer than four in ten (38 percent) say they contribute “some.”

Almost four in ten (39 percent) say religious institutions make little to no contribution in this area, a 16-point increase since 2008.

People with no religious affiliation (atheists, agnostics, and those who say their religion is “nothing in particular”) are less likely than others to see churches as key problem-solvers in society, Pew notes. While white evangelicals remain among the most convinced that churches help solve social problems, even they have become less inclined to express this view today than in the recent past (70 percent today as opposed to 86 percent in 2008).

Why It Matters: There are two disturbing trend lines in this survey. The first is that many religious believers—including regular churchgoers—do not believe churches are having a positive influence on social problems. This is probably not all that surprising, though, in an election year when many Christians are supporting candidates that are likely to exacerbate, rather than alleviate, the current problems in our society. A period of negativity was likely inevitable given our current political and social upheaval.

But the second trend is more concerning—and could pose a threat to religious liberty.

There has been no sign that churches are less charitable or engaged in their communities than they were in 2008. What has changed is the attitude and expectations many Americans have about the role of churches. No matter how many “good works” churches engage in—from feeding the homeless to ministering to sex trafficking victims—it won’t be sufficient to offset our opposition to the increasing sexual permissiveness of society. Our refusal to abandon the Biblical ethic on sexuality makes us, in the eyes of many Americans, a social problem to be solved rather than a partner in solving social problems.

Unfortunately, when it comes to religious liberty the church has relied too heavily on society recognizing the benefits we provide. For instance, churches and other religious institutions in American are almost always exempt from federal, state, and local taxes. The justification for this policy is usually that such institutions provide vital charitable benefits to society. But what happens when this argument is no longer perceived to be true?

Losing popularity is no great loss. Losing tax-exempt status, however, is a considerable loss, since it poses a direct threat to the religious liberty of churches and Christian institutions. As Chief Justice John Marshall wrote in the Supreme Court ruling in McCulloch v. Maryland (1819), “That the power to tax involves the power to destroy; that the power to destroy may defeat and render useless the power to create . . . are propositions not to be denied.” (Unfortunately, even many Christians deny this proposition and are woefully naïve about how taxation would affect—if not outright destroy—many charities and ministries.)

Since we may not be able to turn the tide of public opinion, we need to make better arguments for our religious liberty. Fortunately for us, the “benefits to society” argument is not the strongest reason to support tax exemption for churches. A better reason is that we need to maintain a distinction between the state and the church.

As Richard W. Garnett and Paul J. Schierl explain, the separation of church and state is not a reason to invalidate or abandon these tax exemptions but is instead a powerful justification for retaining them:

The point of church-state “separation” is not to create a religion-free public sphere. It is, instead, to safeguard the fundamental right to religious freedom by imposing limits on the regulatory—and, yes, the taxing—powers of governments. After all, as Daniel Webster famously argued in the Supreme Court (and the great Chief Justice John Marshall agreed) the power to tax involves the power to destroy, and so we have very good reasons for exercising that power with care—especially when it comes to religious institutions.