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Beyond the Johnson Amendment: More Reasons for Humanists to Worry about the Tax Bill


The United States Senate and House of Representatives each recently passed bills reshaping the tax code. Though the bills now need to be reconciled in conference, the attitude of Republican lawmakers toward education should concern humanists as various aspects of the bills demonstrate that the tax code is being used to wage a culture war in favor of conservative Christianity.

The repeal of the Johnson Amendment has received the lion’s share of humanists’ attention as it is correctly perceived as an attack on the constitutional principle of separation of church and state. The 1953 law prohibits electioneering from the pulpit, and for years conservative Christians have led efforts to eliminate it in a transparent ploy to use churches as ATM machines for conservative candidates. However, the bills’ attacks on education are part of a longer-term war on “secular humanism,” a phrase that the Right has used for decades as a dog whistle to raise funds, mobilize voters, and build institutions that bring the country closer to a nightmarish theocracy.

For decades Christian conservatives have blamed what they perceive as America’s decline on the abandonment of God. What they mean is that the prohibition of teacher-led prayers in school along with the teaching of scientific facts in evolutionary biology, geology, and physics has caused God to abandon the country in punishment. Thus, it comes as no surprise that the GOP is benefiting private religious schools over public schools and punishing college graduates in their bills.

Congressional Republicans’ contempt for secular public education is on full display. The Senate version of the bill includes an amendment introduced by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) allowing parents to use tax-free college savings accounts to pay for private school tuition. A similar provision exists in the House version. Nearly eight-in-ten students attending private schools and about seven-in-ten private schools are religious in nature, most of these Christian. Our elected officials are making it easier for parents to abandon public schools in favor of private education that very often snubs longstanding scientific principles and uses taxpayers’ money, whether they are religious or not, to do so.

Conservatives’ contempt toward secular K-12 education only pales when compared to their contempt for higher education. Recent polls show that a majority of Republicans have a negative opinion of colleges. Thus, it is not surprising that college graduates are some of the House bill’s prominent targets in two ways: eliminating the student loan interest deduction and taxing tuition waivers as income.

As tuition costs have risen, more students have resorted to borrowing money to pay for their college education. In a labor market where many college-educated people are unable to find jobs befitting their educational skills and where underemployment is endemic, being able to deduct the interest paid in loans allows many people to save some money on their tax returns. While a small benefit, the elimination of the student loan interest deduction sends a message that a government that has been largely uninterested in solving the skyrocketing costs of attending college is removing one of the few tax incentives aimed at helping people who pursue a higher education.

Those who want to pursue a graduate degree will fare even worse under the House version of the bill. The bill will tax tuition waivers as income. In 2013 the average graduate tuition for in-state students was $16,435. Considering that out-of-state tuition is much higher and that many students pursue their post-baccalaureate education away from home, with an average assistantship at roughly $27,000/year, the tuition costs of many students may be higher than the actual cash they earn as students. These changes will lead to more people, especially underrepresented groups, eschewing higher education; it will reshape our universities into the even more elite institutions of yore, when pursuing graduate study was truly an exercise in economic privilege.

Public K-12 education and higher education are seen as the bastions of the religious right’s longtime boogeyman of “secular humanism.” As the nonreligious population of the United States continues to grow, the religious right has resorted to blaming a godless educational system for the decline in the religiosity of Americans (as evidenced in the movie franchise God’s Not Dead), rather than their own failures in addressing the social and economic issues that people face today. While the evidence that increased education has fueled the growth of the nones in the United States is debatable, the attacks on education are real and should worry humanists and all Americans who value education as a public good.

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