Are Churches Essential Businesses/Services?

This week’s blog entry comes from the news that Joel Osteen’s Houston megachurch received $4.4 million in Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans from the U.S. Small Business Administration. Contrast that news with the bitter fight by Bernie Sanders and others to secure, among other protectionary measures, a second round of direct payments to the American people to assist families struggling to pay rent, mortgages, and other expenses.

Photo by Harry Smith on

The federal government’s response to the ongoing social and economic stagnation caused by the Coronavirus pandemic, while passing with bipartisan approval, has been straight out of the Republican playbook: a form of inequality-expanding trickle-down economics propping up institutions that would otherwise have failed under free market conditions, under the guise of allowing businesses to keep their workers employed. 

What seems odious to many is that churches, while increasingly involving themselves in right-wing politics and not being forced to render to Caesar what is Caesar’s, have lined up in droves to receive PPP loans to the tune of $7.3 billion as of July 2020. Yes, churches may have janitors, organists, and ministers on their payrolls, and these individuals and their families would certainly experience hardships if their wages were disrupted, but there is no clear justification for such federal aid to be disbursed via their employers when direct payments to the American people has so clearly been an option from the start. The Small Business Administration even bent its rules that would typically have disallowed non-profits from receiving this special funding, according to ABC13 in Houston

Federal documents reveal the PPP program ‘declined to enforce’ provisions of federal law for PPP typically barring religious groups from accepting federal loans.

Ted Oberg and Sarah Rafique, ABC13

It is clear that the government’s approach to the Covid pandemic has taken a page out of the 2008 bank bailouts, deeming institutions and corporations of all sizes “too big to fail” and therefore essential services to society. Whether churches are so essential to our social fabric, in an era of ever-increasing religious “nones” and others identifying merely as spiritual apart from religious institutions, does not seem to have been considered. And yet, somehow, most of the population has survived 2020 without regularly stepping foot inside their local churches.

While news about Osteen’s megachurch receiving PPP funding has certainly caused a stir in recent days and prompted a PR response from the church’s spokesman, it remains to be seen whether the fact that churches in general have queued up for their bailout will scandalize either the faithful or Americans broadly who have treasured the separation of church and state, the First Amendment’s establishment clause, and a long tradition of standoffishness about government intervention in ecclesiastical affairs. As congregants and tithers continue to decrease, these PPP loans for churches may simply be delaying the inevitable collapse of America’s religious bubble.

Though designed as a loan system and expected to be repaid to the federal government, the Payroll Protection Program loans can be forgiven if the funds were used for eligible payroll and mortgage expenses. Osteen and other megachurch purveyors of the prosperity gospel tend to portray their donations received as “seeds” that, when planted, can grow into a mighty tree. We will perhaps have to wait and see if Osteen and other churches taking PPP loans symbolically bury their talents (Mt 25:24-28) or manage to sow their seeds into a hundredfold (Mt 13:8) for the benefit of American society. But given the kind of rhetoric coming out of churches lately, I’m not holding my breath.