Do clergy serve the public good? Of course!, you quickly say. Right. That would be my first response, too. But how do you know that's true, besides anecdotal testimony and personal experience. I'm not saying its not true, I'm asking what evidence-based data supports the contention that clergy serve the public good? As we learned to inquire from Grissom, cite your source.

According to tax professor John Witte, Jr., Modern American laws of tax exemption of church property are rooted in two traditions, each of considerable vintage:
  1. Common law tradition, which accorded such exemptions to established churches that discharged certain governmental burdens; and
  2. Equity law tradition, which accorded such exemptions to all churches that dispensed certain social benefits
(From the Southern California Law Review, Volume 64, January 1991, Number 2, p. 368.)

So churches get a break. Nice. But why? Professor Witte observes the social capital benefits that churches (generally) provide to our communities. Churches not only dispense social benefits through their religious activities, exemption proponents argued, but also discharge state burdens through their charitable activities (ibid., p 388).

Long ago, on most every town's Welcome to Our Town sign were etched words similar to these: Welcome to Our Town, a great place to live, work, and worship. Is this still true? In fact, take a look a find a similar sentiment on your town's sign. Send me a photo of what it says. Is the public gathering place for the worship of God a public service today?

What about the clergy? A current Groundswell campaign invites signers to petition the Department of Education to reinstate clergy participation in the Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) program. PSLF was meant to encourage Americans to pursue higher education and public service by guaranteeing that long-time employees of 501(c)(3) non-profit organizations would have their federal education loans forgiven after 10-years of public service employment. Sounds like a great idea. However, clergy were excluded on January 31, 2012 when they introduced new language that now restricts participation in PSLF and effectively excludes clergy from the program.

To appeal to common law, or equity law, is a strong argument that clergy deserve forgiveness for federal education loans. (The fact they qualified for such funding is gift in any case.) I'd like to see evidence-based data demonstrate the value that churches and their clergy provide to the community. Evidence is a more formidable argument than habit or case law.

Many churches have drifted from behaviors of social capital contribution to the common good. Too many churches ignore their responsibility to invest in community energy. Like silos of self-interest, some churches withhold gifts to the community they procure the property tax exemption. Though most churches are beneficial, and most clergy serve the common good, it is a mistake to affirm that all churches and all clergy deserve the tax exemption on property and housing.

Since 1960, churches have declined in membership, which is symptomatic of the reduced social value perceived by their communities. (See my attached graph illustrating this decline, comparing the Presbyterian Church membership to other organizations over one hundred years.)

People show up where they receive a blessing. When there is no sustaining reciprocal exchange of blessings between the church, its clergy, and the community, social capital is diminished, and the argument for a church's property tax exception or clergy's forgiveness of federal education loans is severely weakened.

What do you think?