There’s Always More to the Story: A Conversation With Mark Oppenheimer of the New York Times

MOHLER: Mark Oppenheimer writes the regular “Beliefs” column for the New York Times and also reports for The Atlantic, The Nation, This American Life, and other major media. He has a doctorate in American Religious History from Yale and directs the Yale Journalism Initiative. He is also the host of a new podcast, Unorthodox, on Jewish religious issues. Mark Oppenheimer, welcome to Thinking in Public.

So Mark, tell me what exactly you were up to with this Op Ed piece that ran right after the Obergefell decision calling for an end to tax-exemptions for religious institutions. There are so many other things I want to talk to you about but that is the one thing I have to talk to you about before we get to anything else.

OPPENHEIMER: Right, that’s my new calling card. That’s the one that’s made me famous of late. So the first thing, of course, as you know because you’ve read it, it’s not a piece about religious institutions, it’s not a piece specifically about conservative or traditional religious institutions. It’s about non-profit institutions, of which religious institutions make up some significant percentage, but I don’t know whether they make up the majority; I don’t know that anyone has studied whether or not they do. But it’s about non-profits in America. And really what I was doing was taking the Obergefell decision as an opportunity to make a point that I’ve long thought deeply about—although not as deeply as I’ve been forced to think about it since my piece came out, and was pretty widely circulated and attacked—which is that all tax exemptions are, of course, depending on who you talk to, an exemption is either an exemption or it’s a loop hole. And every time you tinker with the tax code and give a break to one person or one body, somebody has to pick up the slack, somebody else has to pay. In my own city of new heaven, we have an enormous amount of tax-exempted property. Most of it is educational or medical, Yale University hospitals and so on, but some of it is religious. And the fact that all of it is off the tax-rolls in a very, very poor city, means that, well, it helps keep us poor. And of course it jacks up the taxes on the poor and middle class people, like myself, who live here. So, really what I wanted to do was to keep in perspective that this is not just some unalloyed good or harmless little bit of the tax-code that we give to help promote the separation of church and state. It’s something with real consequences and it’s also something quite regressive on whom it hits.

MOHLER: It’s a very interesting argument. Of course, you did get a great deal of attention, some of it from me, immediately after this article appeared. Before we even get to the substance of the argument, let me just ask you a question kind of behind the curtain of how this happened. The Obergefell decision was handed down and within hours, your piece arrived at Time Magazine with the headline, “Now is the time to end tax-exemptions for religious institutions.” Now, your argument is broader than that, but was this a coincidence of timing? Tell us, behind the curtain here, what actually happened in terms of the timing of the article.

OPPENHEIMER: Sure. Well one thing that writers do, and I imagine you do it as well as someone who writes a lot for the public square, is that you pay attention to public events and when something comes up that makes you kind of shout or scream or softly coo into the public’s ear, you draft something and you send it off to an editor that you think might be interested. And in this case, I don’t think it was within hours. I think it was a day later, or maybe two days later. But I certainly never write anything within hours, I’m not that fast. I read the news and I had a point of view on it that I thought would be interesting, that I thought maybe not everyone would say, and I sent a one or two sentence pitch to the editor at, their online ideas section, and said, “would this interest you?” And they wrote back and said “yes, it sounds pretty good if you write it and we like it, we’ll run it.” So I wrote it, sent it off I think, you know, that evening or the next day. He wrote back and said good deal, and they gave me something like $300 bucks—nothing that’s going to pay for my kids’ college or their summer camps even. And they ran it. Writers, of course, don’t run our own headlines. I thought that was an unobjectionable one, but it certainly wasn’t the perfect one because it didn’t quite capture what the piece was about. But I think it was a good one and I’m willing to stand by it. So that’s what happened.

MOHLER: Well I tried to explain to the listeners of The Briefing that indeed writers don’t choose headlines and I can see why a copy editor at Time would have done this because they are looking for attention and the headline certainly got attention. But as I went back and looked at your article, it is interesting that you do identify from the very beginning that the religious exemption is in the center of your concern. And not to read your words back to you, but you said, “First, the religious exemption has forced the IRS to decide what is a religion and thus has entangled church and state in the worst way.” It’s an interesting argument but it is clear that the religious exemption is not peripheral to your concern about non-profits.

OPPENHEIMER: No, it is not at all peripheral. You know, it so happens that because I care about the independence of religion in America, because I’ve devoted my life to writing about religious institutions in all of their diversity, which is something I treasure about the United States, the independence of my own religious congregation where I’m active is something that I treasure and has enriched my life to no end. So because I treasure this aspect of religious life in America and I think we are pretty well unique in the world or one of very few countries, where religions have that kind of freedom, I think it has to be safeguarded at all costs. And I think that asking for special treatment from the IRS, asking for an exemption, is actually a bad idea for religious freedom because of course it opens up the door for the IRS to come in and investigate whether or not you are in fact a religion. So there are two choices when you have thousands and thousands of religious organizations asking for tax-exemptions. Number one, either the IRS can make a fairly regular habit of querying you and asking to look at your books and visiting your worship services and trying to figure out if you are in fact a bona fide religion, so that’s number one. They don’t do that, right, but that would be one possibility, though it would be undesirable. The other possibility is that they are completely hands off and it opens up the door to a lot of fraud and a lot of tax-sheltering of non-religious activities either by organizations that are partly religious but do a lot of non-religious things, or send some of their money to enrich pastors or vendors or what have you, or by organizations that are entirely fraudulent. And there’s probably more of that than we’d like. And that of course undermines respect for religion, it gives a lot of ammunition to the ultra secularists who think that religion is just a big shell game, which I don’t think it is. So I think you have two undesirable things that could happen when you create this loop hole in the tax-code.

MOHLER: Yes that’s an interesting way to present it. I will simply say that the only thing worse than either of those two alternatives is where we would be left if your argument were to prevail because that leaves us with governments actually taxing religious organizations, which as British common law understood even just a few centuries ago, that actually puts the church in the position of paying for the state and subsidizing the state’s interests. And I am not an Anabaptist but this does bring out my Anabaptist instincts when it comes to what that would mean. And…

OPPENHEIMER: What would it mean? I mean, what would it mean if all of a sudden Southern Baptist Theological Seminary had to pay whatever the property tax going rate is in your home town of half a percent or one percent or whatever?

MOHLER: Well, you just switched ground a little bit there because you’re talking about property tax while…

OPPENHEIMER: Absolutely! And it’s interesting that you assume I’m not. And I’m curious as to why you assume I’m not because of course property taxation is really what most of us think about when we say tax exemption. If you want to talk about tax deductions on the federal income tax, that’s even more problematic.

MOHLER: But you mentioned the IRS. That’s why I jumped into it. I’ve made the case in my book coming out shortly. I make the case profoundly that the issue is more likely to affect churches at the property tax, or you mentioned the institution I lead. It would be a very significant financial adjustment. Let me put it that way, if we were to pay property tax. But it goes back to the fact that local governments have generally paid difference to the IRS, especially since the development of the IRS 501(c)(3) status in terms of that designation.

OPPENHEIMER: Well, here’s what happened. So there are two parts of the tax code. There are two things we are talking about here and they’re very different. I’m glad you brought it up. And my piece could have been better if it made this distinction more clearly. Number one is that when federal income tax law was developed in the 1910’s – I think between about 1913 and 1919 – with several federal acts, they carved out as one of the ways that you could make a deduction from your income tax, donations to non-profit organizations. And that law has become cluttered and changed and streamlined and cluttered again over the years. But it’s fundamentally stayed the same, which is you can write off your tax liability, the amount of income you gave charitably to non-profits. So that’s one piece. The other piece is, of course, that if you say that a building is used for non-profit purposes, you can take it off the local and state tax rolls. So they’re both very different. I think that people who want to defend this loophole have to defend both of them. And almost nobody attacking my piece was interested in really understanding these complexities.

MOHLER: Well, some of us are pretty involved in them and have been writing and speaking about them for some time. And that’s why your article got my attention in a way that something that came from frankly someone else and that landed somewhere else other than TIME Magazine would have had less of my attention. I’ll simply say there’s so much too this. And I divide my concerns between the principial and the pragmatic. At the principial level, I think the deference to non-profits in general and specifically to churches and religious institutions is very important to preserving religious liberty. On the pragmatic side, I’ll simply say the issues are really profound because wealthy institutions will survive and financially marginal or weaker institutions would not. Then you also have the reality that you have long been associated with Yale. Presumably under the loss of tax exemptions to non-profits, Yale would lose it. What about the University of Connecticut? How would you adjudicate that?

OPPENHEIMER: There is of course an intrinsic absurdity to a state entity like the University of Connecticut or the University of Tennessee paying taxes to the state which then it would give right back to the university. That gets a bit more complicated and I don’t pretend to have every answer for every piece of this question. I think, obviously we’re talking about tax exemptions. We’re not talking about state actors being exempt from state taxes. It doesn’t make much sense for the state capital building to pay taxes to the state coffers. I think we’re obviously talking, if we’re going to be serious here, about private institutions. I would back up and say. I mean this is how muddled the thinking is. I don’t mean to attack you specifically but I think the field of thinking about this is so skewed by self-interest and so underdeveloped. You said the rich institutions would survive, but the marginal ones would be hit hard. Of course, Al, the poorest ones – let’s take your typical storefront Pentecostal church in a heavily Latino or black neighborhood – they don’t have any tax liability. They’re probably renting the building, which means there is no property tax liability for them. And their members, who are likely in many cases most of them below the poverty line, are not the kind of people who itemize their tax deductions. So the 10 dollars or the 5 dollars they put in the hat on Sunday is nothing they’re writing off. They’re probably taking the standard deduction if they even have to file income taxes. So really what we’re talking about is middle class churches that have to worry about this. It’s actually not the poor. The poor are hurt by this because these are people whose taxes go up in other ways to help fund Yale or Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.

MOHLER: I think there’s actually a lot more to it than that. I’ll want to talk about other issues, but just on this for a moment. What is at the center of my concern would be, for instance, an evangelical institution that’s trying to survive in Manhattan because it might be marginally surviving now, but if it had to pay property taxes or even by rent, in terms of how that might work out, it’s going to be very much an impact. And it will lead to the collapse of many religious institutions and congregations.

OPPENHEIMER: No question right there would be a flattening out of the religious landscape. I don’t think it would be evangelical institutions. I think if you look at something like King’s College which is renting – are they still in the Empire State Building?

MOHLER: No they’re now down on Wall Street, which makes your point even a little bit more profoundly.

OPPENHEIMER: But they’re probably still renting. The people who would be hit hardest would actually be the old mainline Protestant churches on Fifth Avenue with very dwindling memberships. If you look at Madison Avenue Baptist or at The Reformed Temple Congregation Immanuel on Fifth Avenue, the old mainline congregations that are sitting on hundreds of millions of dollars of square footage, their footprint is so valuable right now. So yes, there would be losers in this. Again, if we’re going to be serious religious people, we would want to know. We would truly in our hearts want to know how much of the tax burdening are we offloading onto the poor and middle class in order to pay for these tax loopholes.

MOHLER: And there is, of course, a lot more to that too in terms of what mediating institutions to use Peter Berger’s term are doing to alleviate these problems even before they reach the tax rolls. But I’d like to move to a larger issue if I may. That was the catalyst for our conversation but frankly I’m really interested in broadening that. But using this as indeed a touchpoint to ask you, as one who writes regularly for the New York Times, you’re at Yale University at the journalism institute. You have a very unique vantage point from which to answer the question I’m about to ask you. Just how much trouble are evangelicals and evangelical institutions and those that are now outside the new moral mainstream, just how much trouble are we in?

OPPENHEIMER: It doesn’t seem to me that you’re in much trouble at all. Maybe you should tell me what trouble you see.

MOHLER: I think you’re being just a bit coy there because you understand that – and I haven’t read everything you’ve ever written but I’ve read a good deal of it and appreciate your writing style and the thoughtfulness you bring even to pieces when we disagree – but there has been a vast change in the cultural landscape, so we’ve gone from Will Herberg’s statement in the middle of the twentieth century, Protestant, Catholic, Jew really shaping the culture in a dominant way to where it’s clear that at least the institutions that represent conservative Christianity in America are in a very displaced situation, and I don’t think your article is accidental in identifying specifically those who disagree with the Supreme Court decision as being in a position that does imply a different cultural situation.

OPPENHEIMER: Let’s separate out two things. Number one, while I like the rest of us share the vice of aspiring to unlimited power and craving omnipotence. My column was actually pretty marginal. It would have reached almost nobody but for conservative direct mail marketers and right-wing bloggers and polemicists giving it an enormous echo chamber. There are op-ed columnists who can actually move the needle. Thomas Friedman and Paul Krugman and then David Brooks and some colleagues at the Times, I’m not one of them. I don’t see this as my harbinger in terms of the policy making direction of our country. What’s more, I would add that there are a total of zero politicians in Congress or at the state levels who call for anything what I propose. In fact, since 1983, when in the Bob Jones case, the Supreme Court opened up a little window to challenge tax exempt status of institutions that were in some way running afoul of national norms in how they treated minorities or women for example. It’s literally been used zero times. So nobody for example has tried to strip the Roman Catholic Church or the Southern Baptist Convention of any sort of tax exempt status because they aren’t ordaining women. I know some Southern Baptist churches may. You could say that that’s sex discrimination but nobody seems to think so. And literally everyone in the country is letting everyone go on and do their business.

MOHLER: At the purely pragmatic level, I generally agree with you Mark. I do not believe this is what is going to come first. I think there are many other issues that will come long before any politician has the political will to call for and to pay the political price for the major renovation to the tax code. And by the way, I don’t think Stanford University and Yale are in any real danger, taking the religious issues completely off the table. I know how much Paulo Alto would love to have Stanford University paying taxes, but it’s going to be hard to believe that Stanford is going to lack the political clout to hold that off.

OPPENHEIMER: That’s right. I’ll quickly answer what you were really getting at, which is the loss of centrality of the discourse of traditional Judeo-Christian thought. And I think that’s real. I think that these things are cyclical. I think the 80s were a very comfortable time to be an evangelical Christian or a conservative Jew or a traditionalist Roman Catholic. I think the younger generation today – you know people in their 30s are not there as much as people in their 30s were in 1984. I mean you would know this better than anyone. But look, the one thing I guess I want to end on before I cede this conversation back to your question – I apologize for interrupting there – is that nobody feels more oppressed than atheists. They still look at the polls that say they would rather have a left-handed Muslim lesbian President than ever vote for an atheist. This all depends on where you’re sitting.

MOHLER: That’s why I ask the question in an intentional way there just to elicit a response. I think that conservative Christians have to be very careful about the language of oppression and persecution. I think we also have to understand the changed terrain and that’s where I do think you’re in a unique position to kind of speak to that. Even in terms of the cultural ambitions of the so called religious right and all that, the young people who are in training at the school I lead, they don’t even remember that. That’s how different the world is now. And I think one of the great gifts you could give to the listeners of this program would be to describe where you think we stand in terms of the larger culture. What do we look like?

OPPENHEIMER: I’m very wary of those kinds of things. I’m not someone who comes up with broad sweeping series of these things, but because you’ve been so good to me over the years and always given my writing a fair hearing, I’ll do my best. I think there’s some of what – is it Christian Smith who talks about moralistic therapeutic Deism? I think there’s some of that, the idea that some people believe in some vague God who wants us to do good but ultimately isn’t going to make any demands of us that we don’t feel comfortable with. I think there’s a lot of that out there. There’s a rise of a general kind of spirituality. So for example, I don’t see the organized atheism growing much. I mean they’re starting with such low numbers, you know in the single digits, that they will grow a lot. They could double from 4% to 8% or whatever, but they’re not going to be a major force. I think America’s a great place to be a spiritual seeker and yearner. So that’s number one. Number two, I never believed there was such a thing as the Christian right. I always thought that there were just Republicans who from time to time put a Christian gloss on the way they were voting. And I never peddled in end of the world liberal theorizing about how the Christian right wanted to take over and institute a theocracy. I think actually Ralph Reed wanted people to believe there was something like that. There were people who made good livings out of claiming that they were marshaling Christian voters in a certain way. The South was trending Republican for a long time and it kept doing it. We’re the promise keepers today. I always thought that was a bit of a mirage. I think we’re headed toward a real deinstitutionalization of things. I think that what’s been happening to Roman Catholic churches and Jewish congregations for a long time seems to be happening to Southern Baptist churches and of course United Methodists are well on their way. I think that the traditional church building, a lot more of them are going to be closing and people are going to be finding newer and different forms. That’s my best guess.

MOHLER: Now you’ve written thoughtfully on people like Charles Taylor and his understanding of the secular age. How do you describe this just in terms of the larger reality in the society? Are we looking at the new secular age or is that a false generalization?

OPPENHEIMER: My concern with Taylor and some of his followers when they write about secularization is that they often link it to rationalism and while I would love to think that we’re getting in some good ways more rationalist in the ways that we ought to. For example, putting more faith in the best science whether it’s regards to how man evolved or climate change or bioethics, I’m skeptical that we are. I don’t think we’re headed toward any scientific age. But I do think that we’re heading toward an age of almost too much skepticism. I think that the same kind of skepticism that I see some people bring to organized religion, they then bring to the question of whether they should vaccinate their children. They’ve taken skepticism and turned it into stupidity. And I think that one thing you could say about a somewhat older order, maybe the Will Herbert order that you talked a little bit about,  was that there seemed to be better guardrails. People seemed to be a little less likely to go off into some cult, a little less likely to go off into some anti-vaccination fears, or conspiracy theorizing. I see things getting pretty wild. I don’t think that’s quite what Taylor has in mind. But I see it as a kind of libertarian and libertine age that we may be entering.

MOHLER: But in terms of the work you do, you’re in a unique position as a religion writer regularly for the New York Times. The Times itself is an interesting subculture to observe from outside. I still believe it’s the most influential paper on the planet actually. Yale University, by the way, is a very interesting place, the university where the divinity school has had the most tenuous hold as a place within the university’s life for decades now. So something’s happening. And if secularization is not the word for it, then what is?

OPPENHEIMER: That’s a really great question. Let me think about my students for a moment. Let me reflect on them. I’ve taught everyone from freshmen to masters and doctoral students over the last two years at Boston College where I was a visiting professor last year, at Yale where I’m back to teaching this fall. And I think that what I’m seeing from the students is a kind of admirable earnestness coupled with perhaps a severance from these old traditions. So let me give you an example. I almost never encounter somebody who, for example, identifies as a Methodist because her mom and her mom’s parents identified as Methodists or Baptists or Catholics. You could insert any religion there. Jews would be a little bit different. Mormons would be a little bit different. Those are slightly tighter knit and they have slightly better retention. But if you look at most Protestant churches, in fact, if you even look at Roman Catholicism you are encountering fewer and fewer people who seem to think that what their parents did and what their grandparents did are the appropriate guidepost for what they ought to do. That’s not just in religion. It’s also in, for example, where should they settle, where should they live. Very few of my students think to themselves, “Well, I’m from Denver. My people have been from Denver for 100 years. We were one of the founding families of Denver. I’ll go back to Denver.” Instead, everyone kind of wants to go to Washington, New York, or San Francisco.

MOHLER: Some years ago, you wrote on Stanley Hauerwas and you pointed out that central to his understanding is the fact that the endurance of certain truths and values requires the endurance of the community and of traditions. We’ve had a conversation with him on this program, by the way. Do you accept that? And do you think that’s part of the problem now?

OPPENHEIMER: I do. I think Stanley’s right about that. You’re helping me think toward this because I tend not to think in big theories. I do think that one of the central questions – and I’ve written a little bit about this – is this question of communalism, however you want to construe it. Sometimes I call it localism. I think it’s tied to persistence across generations. I’m very interested in neighborhoods, for example, and their stability. I think that in some ways, one of the tensions I see with young people whom I work with – and this is a tension present in their spiritual life, in their professional life, in their familial life – is how much are they going to listen to certain echoes and whispers from their past? And how much are they just going to entirely strike out on their own, which often means just chaining themselves to some sort of corporate life. I’ll go where my company sends me. I’ll go where the money is. The column I wrote this past weekend for the Times about Methodist ministers who are starting home churches with an environmental flavor, who are saying we’re not going to buy a building but instead we’re going to bake bread, sell it at the farmers’ market, invite people over to dinner at the parsonage, the apartment the minister’s renting. That kind of hyper localism I think is where a lot of young people may gravitate towards. Again, I think that’s a real cleft there between the ones who see the value in that and the ones who are just atomized gnats kind of flying about looking for the brightest light, whether it be money or success.

MOHLER: This conversation with Mark Oppenheimer is particularly interesting to me because you’re talking to a reporter who’s actually more accustomed to asking the questions rather than answering them. And yet he’s been considering these questions for a very long time. Back in 2003, he published a book entitled Knocking on Heaven’s Door: American Religion in the Age of Counter-Culture, in which he made the very interesting argument that the counter-culture of the 1960s didn’t so much lead people to leave religion as it transformed religion. The counter-culture basically moved into the church, into synagogues, and into American religious life. But a reporter and observer of Mark Oppenheimer’s stature is someone who actually watches things as they’re happening and has a very keen understanding of what’s interesting. Now there’s a distinction sometimes between what’s interesting and what’s important. But from a Christian worldview perspective, what’s important should be interesting. And that’s what makes a conversation like this really valuable.

MOHLER: The most interesting of your articles in recent days to me is the one on the new nuns. In this case, not the n-o-n-e-s of the pew study with no religious affiliation but rather the Catholic nuns. You write about an order of Catholic nuns in which you have young millennial women who are entering and they are very traditionalist in terms of their Roman Catholic beliefs. And they’ve gone back to wearing the habit, the very thing that a generation of nuns before them at least in North America tried to set aside. What as an outsider did you see as salient there?

OPPENHEIMER: I just got a tip from somebody in the Roman Catholic world, somebody that I was talking to for another piece I was doing. We had a great conversation, and one of the things I always say to people before I get off the phone or before I take my leave is, “Whom else should I talk to? What else should I write about?” And she said, “You should really to the sisters of life.” This is something I was tipped off to. I just was intrigued because obviously abortion isn’t going away as a topic in the news. The culture war there is, if anything, heating up. And I didn’t even know that 80 miles from me was the headquarters of an order of nuns specifically started by Cardinal O’Connor with the culture of life and quite frankly fighting abortion as its focus. To me, it was interesting that they had flown under the radar so successfully. Here they are. They are the anti-abortion nuns. They wouldn’t put it that way, but they are. Yet people didn’t seem to know that much about them. What’s more, they’re operating right there in Manhattan. They have several houses, convents, right in midtown. To me, it was just an underreported story, I guess I would say more than anything. But look, they very much fit into what we are talking about. These are women who have sought out a kind of stability, a kind of continuity, the renunciation of materialism. By the way, I guess another word we would want to inject here is authenticity. I don’t think, for example, you’re going to be seeing many more new megachurch starts with the big TV screens and the kind of formula, the Willow Creek formula that’s been copied so many times. I think we’re past the point where people find that authentic. And I think that if they’re being sold something, that’s been market tested, that’s a big turnoff. You’re seeing that in the nuns’ lifestyle as well.

MOHLER: Yeah, we’re also seeing it in a change, in terms of the frame through which evangelical ministers are looking. They’re not talking about the megachurch as a model, even though many of them actually grew up in it. The majority of our students, by the way, almost 5,000 students this year, did not come out of very large churches. That’s a very interesting fact, I find, in and of itself. But we are looking at coping mechanisms in the light of modernity. And that’s why, as an ardent evangelical Protestant, I read that article on the nuns, and I thought, “I can see analogies,” in terms of the young people who are on the campus I’m honored to lead. I can see the same kind of counter-cultural identity, but you would not pick out my young seminary (or college) students in the neighborhood as distinctive in dress, or any kind of marker like that. You have written a great deal on groups that do and I find that really interesting.

OPPENHEIMER: I wrote this piece for Time Magazine. Obviously, you took something from it and other people, less temperate than you, were troubled by it. I was a little disappointed, I guess, because I think of myself as trying to prompt real seeking and searching for ideas. I’m not a policy guy. I’ve never written a piece of legislation. I don’t run for office. I’m really interested in ideas. I’m just a little disappointed that nobody was intrigued by the question, the counter-factual that I thought I was posing, which was, “What would the world look like if religious institutions couldn’t afford the buildings that they have? What would it look like if, all of the sudden, it became cheaper to rent apartments, or have church at home, or gather in fields and meadows if you’re in a nice climate?” And I don’t believe that if, all of a sudden, the tax liability of churches and synagogues went up 4-5% in property taxes, or if their donations went down by 10% because people couldn’t deduct anymore – I don’t believe they would go away. I think they would adapt. And nobody seemed to ask, “Well, how would we adapt?”

MOHLER: Well, the Christian church, for example, not to mention as I’m speaking to you – the experience of Judaism – has proven the point that adaptability is amazingly pervasive and adaptability under urgent situations happens, to put it bluntly, but not without horrifying losses. That would be my main concern. I think the question you asked deserves to be answered, but it would take a long conversation to document what those losses would actually look like. It would mean that if you get a church larger than a house, then you couldn’t have a church. This gets you right back to the situation of Romans in the late Roman Empire, where the question was, “Once we can’t meet in a house, where can we meet?”

OPPENHEIMER: Sure, but I also think that the response to my article showed a real lack of faith in the people in the pews, because if someone’s giving $10,000 and they write it off their taxes, and all of the sudden they couldn’t write it off anymore, the assumption that everyone is making is that they would stop giving, or they would cut their donation proportionately. Maybe they wouldn’t.

MOHLER: And let the record show you took us back to the tax exempt issue. I was doing my best not to, but I’m happy to go back.

OPPENHEIMER: I understand, but it was so disappointing because (1) nobody read the piece to the end. (2) And nobody thought, “How great of him to raise an interesting question, or at least, how exciting it could be to engage this!” Instead, there was this kind of doubling down on, like, “They’re coming for mine.”

MOHLER: Well, that’s a fair criticism, I think, in terms of the fact we do tend to read out of immediate self-interest. And I think that’s probably a good admission for any honest reader to make in reading anything. But, I don’t think our concerns were limited to that self-interest. I do there are far larger issues here, and this is a conversation to be engaged. If there’s a willingness to engage the conversation, I don’t think it’s going to come from our circles, because we – you’re talking to Southern Baptists here – we can adapt to just about anything because we began with very little. So the reason why Baptists and Methodists, by the way, grew so much on the American frontier is because we didn’t have to have permission. We didn’t have to have an externally granted American authority. We didn’t even have to have a building. So we can do that again if we have to, but I do want to document and calculate the loss.

OPPENHEMER: Well, understood, but wouldn’t it be admirable if, some of you who are engaged in research or some of your sociologists, said, “Well, how much are we inflicting in higher taxes on other people because of the exemptions we are taking?”

MOHLER: I think that’s a fair question from a public policy perspective and I don’t fear that consideration.

OPPENHEIMER: And you could write into that the assumption – build into that – the question, “Well, how much does our work give back to the public in non-tangible, or hard-to-quantify ways?” You could do that. And as far as I can tell, nobody cares. Nobody wants to do that work.

MOHLER: Well, that’s interesting. We’ll see if anybody listening to this program decides to take that up as a challenge. I do think it would require a team of scholars, experts, and technicians who are trained in economics and all kinds of different things, because I don’t think that either one of us in this conversation is really up to that particular consideration. But asking questions is a part of the job, too. If I may, I’d like to get to something else:

OPPENHEIMER:  Absolutely.

MOHLER: There can’t be that many evangelicals who have read your book on the bar mitzvah, but I am one of those.

OPPENHEIMER: You read my book? Oh, thank you, Al!

MOHLER: Yeah, absolutely. No, I find it fascinating. I grew up in a community with a large Jewish population and they had bar mitzvahs and I didn’t.

OPPENHEIMER: Where did you grow up?

MOHLER: Fort Lauderdale. And it was a very different experience for me, but it gets to larger issues. By the way, I love how you explain the bar mitzvah, in terms of its historical background, and the situation where – just to add the requirements of prayer. You had to decide when a boy was a man and how, and when, exactly he would count – how that gets translated into modern America, and modern American Judaism, with the spectacles that have become some bar mitzvahs, and now bat mitzvahs. But you know, we all, in our own way, as religious traditions, have a way of getting to this point, whether you’re talking about a musical spectacular in a megachurch on the Fourth of July, or you’re talking about the spectacular of the bar mitzvah. But, you wrote that book and it was fascinating to me, but what does it tell you about the transformation of religious forms over time in consumerist, hyper-modern America?

OPPENHEIMER: Two things. Number one, money is good for religion, right up to the point where it gets really bad for religion. And of course this is true of what money does to human beings, which is, its really, really bad to have too little of it. Poverty is not ennobling. It’s not fun. It’s not pleasant. I don’t recommend it. But, having too much money is, in some ways, an almost-as-great danger. And Jews are one of the wealthiest ethnic groups in America, I think. I think were actually up there with Mormons and Greek Americans, if I’m not mistaken. But, you know, Americans are rich. We’re all rich, relative to what some people in this world have to endure. So, money that we should be spending on education, or helping the poor, or just doing outreach – we’re not. We’re spending in other ways. But, the second thing that it taught me was, that nevertheless, really, really, good people managed to make spiritually and religiously meaningful experience, even out of some very consumerist forms. So, there are people, and some of my friends in the secular world don’t believe this, but there are people for whom the megachurch worship experience is profoundly moving. Its hard for me to see how, but I’m aware that, as a journalist, walking in, interviewing hundreds of people over the years that for some people it is really moving, and really transformative, and it saves their lives.

MOHLER: Yeah, well, I also want to point out that authenticity means different things to different people. And I can tell you that a good many of those pastors of those very large churches – indeed the megachurch model – are friends of mine. And I know them to be incredibly authentic, in terms of their ministry and in terms of their vision. And the people who are in those churches are also experiencing authentic Christianity. You know, the way I tell people is: there are some people who, in a given situation, would gravitate toward a small college, and they need the small community and the small college. There are others want to go to the University of Michigan. That is not a question of authenticity. It is a question of opportunity and of one’s own understanding of the community in which one fits well.

OPPENHEIMER: No, that’s right and each model brings with it its own virtues and its own vices. I mean, my wife went to a college without fraternities and sororities, and guess what, it didn’t have the worst aspects of fraternity and sorority culture. On the other hand, really, really small communities can be more gossipy and can make it harder to carve out a sphere of privacy. You know, in a small house church, everyone’s in your business in a way that they’re not at a megachurch. So, I agree. And I’ve talked to people who’ve had really, over-the-top, materialistic, crass bar, or bat, mitzahs for whom it was a tremendously transformative experience. So I try not to judge, but I do think that we always have to be on guard against the blandishments of money.

MOHLER: I think you’re on solid, Scriptural ground there, Mark.


MOHLER: And I think to disagree with you on that point is to disagree with the prophets and Jesus. So I think that’s very safe ground to be on.

OPPENHEIMER: Can I ask you a New Testament question?

MOHLER: Absolutely.

OPPENHEIMER: So, I would’ve thought – and this could show my ignorance of your tradition – that to “render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s” would be proof-text #1 for Christians paying, not asking for tax exemption.

MOHLER: Well, it is proof-text #1, exactly, for why Christians, as citizens, should not ask for tax exemption, as Christians, because we have to render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s. The question is whether Caesar has the right to lay claim upon a spiritual institution. Because, remember what Jesus said was two-fold. “Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s. Render unto God that which is God’s.” And the most important thing Jesus was clearly saying there was that as Caesar put his image on the coin to let him have it, God put His image on you. He can’t have your soul. And that’s not to say Christians can’t be a part of an Erastian church, such as the church of England, without spiritual compromise, in terms of the governmental relation and the tax relation. You know, Germany has tax-supported churches, including some evangelical churches, so I’m not saying that the political and economic facts are always going to be the same, in terms of faithfulness. But, I am going to argue that “render unto Caesar” does not mean Caesar has the right to snuff out the life of a church hanging on by the skin of its teeth in Manhattan.

OPPENHEIMER: Now, one conservative, quite conservative, someone you’ve no doubt heard of – he’s one of the great heroes of conservative law professors whom I asked about this question. Someone who’s very interested in the separation of church and state in a way that is very pleasing to conservative Christians – pointed out that, of course, if you followed his own logic, or the logic that a lot of conservatives brought to bear on me, to his conclusion, you wouldn’t just get to write off your deduction, in other words to get 20-30% – you’d get it all back. But, the fact that you don’t get it all back means that, of course, the government does – there still is government money circulating, they still are entwined.

MOHLER: I think, in terms of a fungible economy, there is no way to get away from that fact. I can’t imagine an economic set of conditions in which there isn’t some level of intertwining once you have the complicated economy we have now. And the tax laws, that, frankly, are pieced together as they come together and I have no way of figuring how we can get out of that issue in a short conversation, but I’d like to shift if you’ll allow me one other question before we close.


MOHLER: Okay. So you’re talking to an evangelical Christian and you’re talking from your own background – what in the world do we make of the phenomenon of the Pope, with the Pope’s visit, as we’re talking, right before us one the calendar? What does it look like, from the vantage point of the New York Times, when you’re looking at the Francis phenomenon?

OPPENHEIMER: Well, I have no involvement in the Pope coverage at all. And we have, like every organization, our own “Popologists” and we have people who speak Italian, people who are better versed in Catholocism. I can speak for myself. Papal visits always excite the masses and I think that sometimes they end up doing more than that. So, you know, if I’m not mistaken, John Paul II made some visits to, historically, communist countries that were really transformative for those places, and really gave people resolve to oppose those oppressive governments, and really helped people change their lives by changing their countries. Whenever the Pope visits the United States, Australia, or Canada, I always this that its more of a media event than it is an actual opportunity for change. I don’t think it leaves behind that much of a legacy. I do, sometimes, speak to nuns or priests who will say, “It was when I saw the Pope that I realized I had to change my life.” Not necessarily this Pope, but other Popes. But I think that the mass spectacle doesn’t matter much in this case. Do you agree with me on that?

MOHLER: Yeah, I think the big question people are asking, and as an evangelical protestant, I’ve got a lot invested in this question, not to mention the question of the Papacy itself…

OPPENHEIMER: …is he going to return people to the church?

MOHLER: Well, no, I think the bigger question is: Is Pope Francis the agent of liberal change within the church? Because I think what’s happened is that the expectation has been largely set by Pope Francis himself that there is some major change taking place. Eventually, people are going to have to ask hard questions, and I think it’s going to be fascinating to see the secular press do this, and that is: Is there any real change here? And I’m going to be watching that coverage very carefully.

OPPENHEIMER: I think that one thing that this Pope wants to do – this is my own bystanding, armchair thinking – is that he wants to iron out some hypocrisy. If, in fact, you have people who are taking communion who are people that are living in sin, who are divorced, people who have not confessed lately…whatever, but everyone knows that, essentially, there is a gentlemen’s agreement that you let people take communion and that is a way to keep them in the church, well, then I think this Pope would say, “Let’s be honest about that and let’s not interrogate people and decide who’s in and who’s out, in terms of communion.” I think that’s what he was doing this morning when he was talking about smoothing out the annulment process. If people are going to get annulments and if the church is going to grant them pretty freely, as it does, then let’s not torture people by having automatic appeals and having extended trials, right? I think he’s saying, “If we’re a church that freely gives out annulments, then we’re a church that freely gives out annulments.”

MOHLER: It’s going to be very interesting to watch, but the big issue for me, as an evangelical protestant, is that there are going to be inescapable theological issues that millions and millions of Americans are going to have to think about to some extent, and may have to think about more deeply than they are prepared, in terms of what happens with the Pope’s visit.


MOHLER: Well, I think, for instance, evangelicals looking at the Papacy, who may not really have any knowledge of the Roman Catholic church, but are going to be watching a sacramental system of theology played out, in terms of these public masses – I think it’s going to lead to a lot of questions. And I’m not sure the secular media, by and large, and you’re the exception to this – I’m not saying that just because I’m talking with you – but most secular reporters, actually, by their own admission, and I end up talking to a lot of them, don’t know a whole lot about theological issues in general. It’s going to be a very interesting process because you can’t have a Papal visit like this, with all the issues swirling around it, without asking some pretty big theological questions.

OPPENHEIMER: Of course, Roman Catholicism represents, for a lot of people, that hope for a unified church, for one city of man across the world with no divisions. And there’s no way any protestant denomination can ever represent that. I think for a lot of people, the public performance of Roman Catholic ritual is very inspiring in that way. It doesn’t mean they run and begin studying to become Roman Catholics, but I think that it does remind them that the ultimate goal is the sort of reconciliation of all of these factions into one humanity.

MOHLER: Big issues, and I think that’s going to be the fascinating thing to watch, to see just how the larger culture deals with, or fails to deal those theological issues. Mark, it’s been fascinating. We started with tax exemption, ended with the Pope, with Stanley Hauerwas and bar mitzvahs in between. This is the most interesting conversation in the range of issues I’ve had in a very long time. I thank you for your willingness to engage in this conversation.

OPPENHEIMER: Oh, well listen, will you come on my podcast, on Unorthodox?


MOHLER: Absolutely. I’d be honored to do so, and you’ve got my number. Anytime you need me, you give me a call.

OPPENHEIMER: Every week, we have a guest ‘Gentile of the Week.’ You’ll be on one of these weeks.

MOHLER: I would be happily honored to be so. Thank you for joining me today for Thinking in Public.

OPPENHEIMER: Alright, Thanks so much.

MOHLER: Those of us who consume a great deal of the media and, in particular, read newspapers, such as The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Financial Times, and other leading national, and international, papers, we often tend to think of those periodicals, those major media outlets, as institutions, which of course they are, and, in most cases, major corporations. But, they’re actually being produced by, written by, and edited by very real human beings. And those reporters and editors are very much involved in shaping the way we think; noticing what is important, looking at what is interesting, and bringing analysis that eventually gets filtered down throughout much of the major culture around us. When I say that The New York Times is, by most measures, the most influential newspaper in the world, I’m not paying The New York Times a compliment, I’m just stating an analytical judgment. There are other newspapers that also have vast influence. Most importantly, I would argue, The Wall Street Journal, joined by The Financial Times, The Washington Post, and a few other newspapers in America. But, the New York Times plays a very distinctive role, simply because of the prominence of New York City, in the production of culture, and because of the venerable influence of the New York Times over decades and, especially, by the mid-point of the 20th century, and now into the 21st. Anyone interested in worldview and cultural analysis has to look at a media property like the New York Times with tremendous interest, because what happens in the New York Times becomes filtered down, in terms of other major media. And what makes a newspaper like the New York Times rather unique is the depth of its reportorial and editorial staff. There is someone at the New York Times who knows something about, just about, everything, and that’s what gives that newspaper such credibility. And yet, in an age I genuinely believe is increasingly secularized, to this respect, fewer and fewer people at a place like the New York Times are expected to know about theology, or much about religion in general. And that’s what makes a conversation with Mark Oppenheimer so interesting because it’s interesting to find what he finds interesting and it’s also very important, from a worldview perspective, to understand as best we can how others see us. When it comes to the New York Times evangelical Christians are one of those groups that are seen somewhat at a distance, certainly in terms of the major worldview that shapes that newspaper and the larger cultural industry there in New York and beyond.

This was a different kind of conversation for Thinking in Public, not so much focused on an author and a book, but rather focused on the work of one reporter and the catalyst for this, undeniably, was the article he wrote right on the heels of the Supreme Court’s Obergefell decision, in which he called for the elimination of tax exemption for religious and other non-profit institutions. The fact that he wrote that article was very instructive. The fact that he wrote it and that he wrote that article, at that time, and that, in this case, TIME Magazine ran the article and ran it very prominently on its website, just as Americans are coming to terms with the fact that the Supreme Court had just legalized same-sex marriage in all fifty states.

This was a unique conversation in that it raised more issues than we could possibly trace out and follow. It also points to a truth that we come back to time and time again, and that is this: Even in this age, that is increasingly secular in so many ways, and proudly secular in so many dimensions and in so many communities, the reality is that this conversation demonstrates that theology, nonetheless, is always there right behind the headlines. A secular age, as it turns out in this respect, really isn’t so secular after all, and the Christian worldview explains why it really can never be as secular as it claims and, perhaps, even intends to be. The New York Times rather regularly runs this ‘Beliefs’ column – that’s the label on the column – but in reality belief is behind virtually every story that is ever published in that magazine, and it always will be.

And finally, in our culture journalism matters, especially when that journalism comes from some of the most elite and influential sources in media platforms in the world. That’s one of the reasons why I enjoyed this conversation with Mark Oppenheimer. I hope you did too.


Thanks again for listening to Thinking in Public.