Christian groups can no longer support themselves adequately through member donations and other investments. That’s just the reality of the situation for them these days. They rely more and more on the perks and benefits they gain from American tax laws. Without a sea change in membership numbers, a development which seems less likely to happen by the day, their culture wars and expansionistic efforts alike will collapse. Without those perks buoying up their faltering donation levels, there is little to no way that American Christianity can maintain itself in recognizable form. Worse, their leaders (and many of their followers) are well aware of this fact, yet choose to put on displays of shocking entitlement and belligerence that are startling to see in people who are supposed to be the epitome of love and charity.
One of the most fascinating bits of fallout from the ongoing secularization of America is that we’re starting to ask some questions now that would have been completely unthinkable 20 or 25 years ago. One of the most provocative of those questions centers on whether or not we should start taxing churches and making them responsible for all of their own activities and upkeep. It’s a proposal that would have been immediately rejected out of hand at one point, but it’s recently been getting serious attention from all kinds of places, from Big Think to Newsweek to Time to the Washington Post to Forbes.
Here’s what’s going on.
Most Americans don’t even realize just how much they pay to subsidize a religion they aren’t even part of, whose tenets they actively reject and which actively works to damage their well-being, security, and rights.
Churches are tax-exempt and enjoy a number of monetary perks, you see, and so the taxes and fees that they would normally be paying toward our national debt and whatnot is flowing not back to the citizens of this country, but back to these church groups’ own buildings, land, and payroll. A very tiny percentage of the funds they take in goes to charity (though some activities, like the “Beach Reach” evangelism vacation we talked about last time, are mostly self-funded by gullible young people), but almost all of it goes right back into the upkeep and expansion of the church group itself and the enrichment of its leaders.
A few years ago, a college professor figured out that all those perks (from local to federal level) add up to about USD$71 billion annually. States alone lose more than USD$26 billion a year on lost property taxes, while the parsonage allowance alone costs us USD$1.2Bn. (If you add in Christians’ donations to their churches, that total figure rises to USD$83.5Bn. It may even be higher than that, since a lot of sources of revenue weren’t counted–like how much sales tax subsidies churches get and the exemptions on church buildings besides the actual parsonages and sanctuary buildings.)
One of our commenters worked out that this amounts to about USD$1000 in taxes laid upon every single American family every year–even if they are part of the 80-ish percent of Americans who don’t attend church regularly, or are part of the 23% of Americans who don’t subscribe to any religion.
I’m pretty sure that Americans could find somewhere to put all that money that would do a lot more good than helping buy another private jet for a megapastor or funding yet another anti-gay rally somewhere.
Worse yet, churches no longer really care about the rules that we have set in place for all recipients of these perks. (Freedom for me, but not for thee!) As the Freedom from Religion Foundation reports, churches can actually do some limited political campaigning, but there are strict laws regulating how it’s done. Alas! Christians cannot be counted upon to follow any rules at all unless forced to do so, and our government is singularly unwilling to press too much on them so they run wild.
Fundagelical ministers have even picked one day out of the year when pastors deliberately step up to their pulpits on a Sunday morning to deliver a deliberate show of defiance to the United States government through a completely forbidden sermon about politics–the day is ironically called “Pulpit Freedom Sunday.” (One supposes that “Pulpit Hypocrisy Sunday” is considered redundant at this point.) They do this because they are completely comfortable (and correct, damn it) in thinking that the government will do absolutely nothing to rein them in.
If anybody does try to object to what they’re doing, one right-wing Christian with Liberty Counsel, Matt Barber, has literally suggested using the protest letters as “birdcage liner.”
Birdcage liner! He really said that!
Are you pissed off yet?
Remember, that is your very own personal money he’s misusing so much that letters come to be written in the first place. It’s your goodwill and patience as an American citizen that he is gloating about abusing.
The sort of flagrantly illegal activity Mr. Barber encourages grows more egregious every single year, and it would likely be all but impossible for churches to pay for all this grandstanding if they were not receiving quite a lot of help from the public to do it.
An Antiquated Tax Code with Some Very New Issues.
Churches weren’t always tax-exempt. That only started in the 1890s, according to the IRS. In 1954, the modern tax code was established–including section 501(c), which covers groups like churches. At that time, limits were also set on exempt groups’ political activities. Church leaders also had a lot more power than they do now, and Christianity itself was a little more monolithic than it is today. It was a lot easier to decide which groups should be considered exempt for religious reasons and which shouldn’t, and while their reach was powerful on the local level, churches’ influence was quite limited compared to the global reach many of them have today.
One of the major perks enjoyed by church leaders is the housing allowance that our tax code gives them. This allows them to buy a home and reside in it without worrying about paying taxes on it. Kenneth and Gloria Copeland are the leaders of one megachurch. They have a USD$6.3M parsonage by a beautiful shimmering lake. Another pair of megachurch leaders, Randy and Paula White, have a USD$3.5M condo in Trump Tower in New York City. Just imagine what the taxes on those homes could bring in for a city and state–and now imagine what more modest residences these mega-phonies would have to slum it in if they couldn’t escape property taxes.
In the same way, unfettered by the usual rules placed on secular groups–even on non-religious charities–Christian groups can rake in massive amounts of money and spend it however they wish, with almost no oversight at all from any governing bodies to ensure that the money is being used for what donators think it is. One informant provided documentation to Charity Watch, a watchdog group, showing that one megapastor, Eddie Long, spent 62% to 89% of his “nonprofit’s” total expenses on personal stuff like cars and housing. He’s not unusual at all in this respect. Other megachurch leaders regularly use their church’s money to pay for plastic surgery, personal trips to sports events, Las Vegas trips, and the like.
As a result of these abuses, we are seeing increasing calls to end churches’ tax exemptions and parsonage allowances, though I’m not sure Americans are anywhere close to pulling the plug on the idea. Many of us are still locked in the mindset that churches actually do significant charity work in their local communities–even though that is almost never the case, and many people are still unaware of the degree to which church resources have shifted to fighting cultural battles over equal marriage and reproductive rights instead of combating the systemic inequalities that lead to poverty. One cannot overstate that degree, either; a Harvard political scientist, Robert Putnam, says that churches have used “all their resources” in those cultural squabbles–that “this is the most obvious point in the world,” that they are “entirely focused on issues of homosexuality and contraception and not at all focused on issues of poverty.”
How much of that fight d’you reckon fundagelicals could maintain if they had to pay for their own damned parsonages and pay applicable taxes on stuff just like the rest of us do?
One of those fundagelicals is pretty sure he knows the answer.
The End of Churches (At Least, the End of Their Favorite Kind).
Denny Burk of the conservative site The Federalist (and spewer of what a Christian critic of his calls “wicked theology”) certainly knows how to write a shots-fired headline. In June 2015, one gracing his blog post read, “Ending Tax Exemptions Means Ending Churches.”
Referring to the Time link above, he says a pastor friend of his lamented that his small church probably wouldn’t survive if it lost its tax exemptions and perks. Mr. Burk sanctimoniously warns, “That, my friends, is the point. And [that Time writer] Oppenheimer knows it.” He’s totally certain that the reason anybody’s talking about ending church exemptions is that TRUE CHRISTIANS™ (like him) keep campaigning to strip rights from LGBTQ people, so the gay mafia or something is deliberately trying to persecute them for, I suppose, flouting political-campaigning laws.
He writes (in a tone that I read as downright histrionic),
When tax exemptions are removed, donors will give far less than they are giving now. Churches will become liable to property taxes. That means that many churches will have to forfeit their property to the government because they won’t be able to afford the taxes they have to pay on it. Many of them wouldn’t be able to pay them now. If donations went down, they would be that much further from being able to pay them. . . After all, [Oppenheimer] argues, the government would do a better job than churches at meeting the needs of their community.
The funny thing is, he isn’t wrong about how inept churches are at administering charity. Government does considerably better at helping people than churches ever did.
As just one example, Big Think notes that the Mormon church spends only 0.7% of its annual income on charity. 71% of its revenue goes to operating expenses (compare that to the Red Cross, which spends only 7.9% of its revenue on expenses). Wal-Mart gives USD$1.75Bn in food aid to charity every year, which far eclipses several denominations’ efforts.
So because they were never able to or willing to provide the amount of aid needed, churches don’t bear the burden of handling all our nation’s charity. They weren’t up to the task in the first place, and they bungled it nearly every step of the way anyway with their moralizing, paternalistic control fetishizing, and demands to police recipients of their largesse for their overall deservingness. I’m pretty sure most of them are well aware that if they had to face the exact same oversight that a federal agency has to bear for the charity they manage to distribute, they’d never be up to snuff.
The fact that fundagelicals can no longer adjudicate who does and doesn’t get help anymore seems like it fuels a lot of their rage about those selfsame government programs–because government agencies no longer care quite so much if someone “deserves” it or not, or acts appropriately humiliated and abjectly grateful enough for getting some pittance to help them survive. If someone fits a varying range of objective metrics and qualifiers, they get the aid–without fundagelicals’ approval or disapproval, and without jumping through the hoops that Christians even now demand of the recipients of the meager amount of charity they are willing to spare in between building giant, useless cross statues and lavish parsonages, visiting prostitutes, and running boxing matches during spectacular testosterone-fueled weekends celebrating their Guns ‘n’ Bubba Jesus World Tour men’s retreats.
The other funny thing is that Denny Burk is half-right again, in that surreal, totally turned-around way his tribe sometimes is, about why they are cruising straight toward losing their tax breaks. The equal-marriage culture war his group created and even today maintains may well lead to the loss of all those perks and exemptions that make that culture war possible for them to wage. But they won’t lose it all because of how righteous they are, nor how super-special-Jesus-fied they imagine themselves to be.
They’ll lose those perks because they couldn’t follow the simple rules that go with those perks, and we finally are getting sick of subsidizing a group that breaks our rules and lies about its real activities and priorities, then demands we help finance their hate speech and dishonesty–while stomping on our feet and mocking us for our helplessness to prevent them from breaking our rules.
If they want taxpayer money, they have to follow our rules to get it. If they don’t want to follow our rules, they’re welcome to do whatever they want–as long as they’re doing it on their own dime. If they can’t afford to wage culture wars on their own dime, then they are welcome to some help–as long as they follow our rules. At no point will they be allowed, in the happy future I see coming soon to a theater near you, to both take our money and flout the rules that go with that money. Denny Burk and his pals are allowed to dislike those facts, but if they keep trampling over us, sooner or later someone important is going to get mad about it to take steps to remove them from the public teat.
It doesn’t really matter what the exact topic of their rulebreaking is, though. It happens to involve equal marriage now, but it could be anything, really. They’re the ones who chose this hill to die on, not us. They could retreat from that hill at any time and start following the rules on their own, and we’d all go back to pretending that churches are lofty institutions of wonderful charity and humankindness. They just won’t, because to do so would be to sacrifice a public image they have spent decades polishing and a particular set of talking points they’ve spent just as long pretending were given to them by a real live god.
That’s all very hard stuff to walk back once it’s been yanked out and wagged in people’s faces for long enough.
Surely one of the most ironic aspects of the Religious Right is their collective boner for the Founding Fathers, considering their entitlement mentality regarding the taxpayers’ money. Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1786 that he opposed allowing any public funds to be used for private religious groups, concluding, “To compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves and abhors, is sinful and tyrannical.”
A pity that the followers of the Prince of Peace and Lord of Love are so singularly incapable of behaving with grace, fairness, compassion, and mercy. Perhaps once they no longer get our money to operate, they’ll learn to live within their means. I’ve heard lots of fundagelicals say that it’s good to live within your means, while it’s totally awful to live beyond one’s means. Maybe it’s time for them to, uh, start practicing what they preach.
I have a great deal of confidence that at some point, Christians will have lost so much power and influence, so much credibility and trust, that we’re going to stop just making noise about taxing churches and start moving in that direction. It’s all but inevitable, it seems. We really can’t afford to continue this charade forever, and the nature of Christians’ offenses in the misuse of our money is getting too serious to simply ignore.
A simple revocation of perks won’t be the end of churches, of course. They survived before they received all these undeserved exemptions, and they’ll survive in some form long after that time ends. But the era of ostentatious, grandstanding fundagelical leaders who “make it rain,” maintain a studious lack of fiscal accountability, and cackle about using taxpayer money while flouting taxpayer rules is coming to an end–and their own behavior is going to be what causes it. It might take time, but a purely earthly form of karma is already winding through the gears. I don’t know about you, but I find something supremely satisfying in that thought.
We’ll have to come back to Denny Burk sometime, because my goodness that wily rascal is hypocritical even by fundagelical standards, but next we’ll be looking at one reason why financial support from American taxpayers is getting to be so damned important to the Religious Right. As noted previously, the difficulties their more liberal brethren faced in retaining members has now finally arrived at their own doorstep, and they’re finally starting to realize just how bad evangelical churn is going to be for them. But as usual, the solutions they’re coming up with don’t have any bearing on reality. See you next time!