Speaking truth to power is easy—or easier, anyway, than speaking truth to money. We might resist a sovereign who commands us to preach his favored doctrines. But a sovereign who slips us a little cash on the side, just for a sermon or two on something we maybe don’t really disagree with all that much? Harder. Much, much harder. It was true back in 1717, for example, when Benjamin Hoadly preached a famous Anglican sermon in front of a receptive King George I—a sermon that called for church government to be taken away from the bishops and given directly to the king.
And it isn’t a surprise now in 2014, when Maryland’s Prince George’s County, just outside Washington, D.C., began issuing tax rebates to local churches. As it happens, those tax rebates do require a little something from the churches—a nod to the king, as it were. All the churches need to do to get the rebate is perform a little environmentalist ministry, according to a well-reported story in the Washington Post on November 16. All they need to do is preach a little green.
Maryland has been on a tax spree over the past eight years, as the state government looked desperately for funds with which to support its social programs. An enormous majority of the state’s voters belong to the Democratic party; President Obama carried Maryland by 25 percentage points in 2012, and Democrats have held the governor’s mansion 41 out of the past 45 years. But the piling up of new taxes proved too much even for Maryland, and voters in the very blue state shocked pollsters this fall by electing Republican Larry Hogan their new governor.
The most unpopular of Maryland’s recent tax increases was what unhappy locals dubbed “the rain tax” and the state called its “stormwater remediation fee,” imposed on all property owners whose runoff drained into the Chesapeake Bay. The cost of the environmentalist measure is spread evenly across business properties, private houses, and buildings owned by nonprofits—including churches. And there’s the problem.
Forestville New Redeemer Baptist Church, for example, had its rain tax assessed at $744 a year by Prince George’s County, and the church just couldn’t afford it. But we needn’t worry. If, with the county’s help, the church installs rain barrels, plants some trees, and replaces its parking lot tarmac with permeable material, the tax will be reduced to “virtually nothing,” according to the church’s pastor, Nathaniel Thomas.
Or maybe, in fact, we do need to worry, for the church also has to do for the county just a little bit more—just the little bit more that proves its heart is in the right place. The church must also run a “green ministry,” promoting the environmentalist changes to its property. And Pastor Thomas must preach, just now and again, “environmentally focused sermons” to “educate” his congregation.
Around 30 churches in the county have applied to join the rain-tax rebate program, which will save some of them (especially the ones with large parking lots) thousands of dollars a year. The Washington Post story was secularist in its framing, which is to say that the reporting was done in a kind of wonder that churches, of all things, are getting these rebate deals—thereby setting the county up for possible wall-of-separation and viewpoint-discrimination lawsuits from secular nonprofits and even for-profit businesses.
But precisely what religious Americans should worry about is that churches, of all things, are getting these deals. The nation’s houses of worship are an “untapped resource” for making people “do what is right,” a spokesman for the Environmental Protection Agency told the Post. And when government officials start telling churches to preach “what is right,” we’ve crossed into a new and very un-American world of sermons for the king’s pleasure.
A world, for that matter, of sermons for the king’s money. By all reports, Adam Ortiz is a good guy. Environmental director for Prince George’s County, he’s a tall, wide-eyed man with a lopsided smile and a goofy Van Dyke beard framing his mouth. He doesn’t look like someone who wants to wreck the republic and establish the kind of well-controlled state churches for which even King George I of Great Britain hungered in vain. Ortiz simply believes in environmentalism so deeply that he doesn’t understand the possibility that churches shouldn’t be bribed to preach about what he thinks they must also believe is right. Protecting the Chesapeake from pollutants carried in by runoff is important, sure. That’s why Maryland imposed the rain tax. But more important is getting people’s minds straight. And who better than the churches for that?