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Altar Welfare: Churches Steal $71 Billion A Year From Taxpayers, Spend Little On Charity

Altar Welfare: Churches Steal $71 Billion A Year From Taxpayers, Spend Little On Charity

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There is a lot of hypocrisy going on in Washington, but none worse than what’s perpetrated on the American public by Republicans in the name of religion and vague appeals to “fiscal responsibility”. The Republican Party has the mendacity to stand in the way of legislation that would close hidden corporate and personal tax loopholes that are estimated to cost American taxpayers $38 billion a year. However, what always slips right through the cracks are the tax benefits to religious organizations, which overwhelmingly support Republicans, and are estimated to cost taxpayers nearly double those of hidden off-shore havens. The Secular Policy Institute estimates: “If religious organizations (ie. churches, synagogues, mosques, etc.) were taxed like for-profit agencies, it was found that this could generate upwards of $71 billion per year in tax revenue…even if churches were merely held to the standards of other non-profit agencies, this could generate $16.75 billion in tax revenue per year.”

According to Pew, folks affiliated with ties to religious organizations also overwhelmingly support the Republican Party: “Republicans lead in leaned party identification by 48 points among Mormons and 46 points among white evangelical Protestants, with younger white evangelicals (those under age 35) having similar partisan affiliation as their older counterparts.” This religious fervor can easily be seen in the recent battles over the fraudulent Planned Parenthood videos. Of course, their anger is exacerbated by the fact Planned Parenthood also provides family planning and contraceptive services, which also confound Republican religious sensibilities. Interestingly, government support for Planned Parenthood represents less than 0.5% of the more than $100 billion in combined tax benefits to religious organizations and off-shore tax havens.

What is particularly egregious about the tax benefits going to religious organizations is that they receive these benefits, ostensibly, because they are charities. Researchers at Secular Humanism have calculated: “The Mormon Church, for example, spends roughly .7% of its annual income on charity. Their study of 271 congregations found an average of 71% of revenues going to ‘operating expenses’…Compare this to the American Red Cross, which uses 92.1% of revenues for physical assistance and just 7.9% on operating expenses. The authors also note that Wal-Mart, for instance, gives about $1.75 billion in food aid to charities each year, or twenty-eight times all of the money allotted for charity by the United Methodist Church and almost double what the LDS Church has given in the last twenty-five years.”

Charities, whether they are religiously affiliated or secular, give for the benefit of those less fortunate – they give to whom they give by addressing the needs of the poor without compensation. There is no quid pro quo. While one might feel good about giving, one gives charity for the sake of giving – itself.  On the other hand, religious organizations hire people whose purpose is to give salvation out of obligation “…for these religious functionaries,” are paid to do so. It is no more “charity” than a doctor performing a surgery to save a life or a social worker intervening in an abusive family situation. If the people you are helping are paying you to help them, it’s not charity, it’s labor, and these pastors are well compensated by their congregations – take as an example the recent story about the pastor who said of asking his congregation to pay for a $65 million jet: “Jesus wants me to have this jet.”

Religious organizations are not non-profits, and if they conduct charitable activities, those activities should be separated out from their normal finances, which should not be financed by the government. However, we know the Republican worldview is all about distorting religion to support their bizarre vision of science and reality – supported by a tax policy that enables their wealthy constituency to support their political efforts.

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Colin Taylor
Opinion columnist and former editor-in-chief of Occupy Democrats. He graduated from Bennington College with a Bachelor's degree in history and political science. He now focuses on advancing the cause of social justice and equality in America.

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