How To Make $71 Billion A Year: Tax the Churches | 21st Century Spirituality | Big Think
As noted in the Tampa study, churches fall into the category of ‘charitable’ entities. This is often a stretch. The researchers 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,’ while help to the poor is somewhere within the remaining 29%. 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.
Which brings us to the second category of giving, or ‘spiritual charities.’ Unfortunately, churches do not meet the requirement of a charitable organization for tax purposes. Here’s why: Church employees pay taxes on their salaries (although clergy get a handful of write-offs that the commoner cannot, including their physical living expenses). Therefore, when they are doing things like praying for god’s intervention or to heal sick children, that’s not charity. They’re doing what they are paid to do.
The most important distinction the study makes, however, is the difference between physical and spiritual assistance. There’s an Internet meme of a pair of white adults handing bibles to African children, while the children ask how they can eat them. Prayers may make those praying feel good about themselves, but do nothing to eradicate poverty or feed the meek. I’m not sure what glitch in human psychology allows us to confuse the two, but the longer we do, the less actual assistance we can offer.
Yet this is the vicious feedback loop we’ve found ourselves in. Today’s religious entities offer either a) abundance (in the style of Joel Osteen/Creflo Dollar) or b) salvation (the fantasy of heavenly return); we donate or tithe for such services; they grow bigger and wealthier while expanding their power, using a considerably small amount of revenue for real-world charitable work. More always wants more, because more can never have enough, regardless of the mask it wears.
A main GOP talking point against raising taxes on the wealthiest Americans is that it wouldn’t raise enough revenue to put a serious dent in the deficit. But it’s a start, despite their claims that it would ruin trickle-down economics. The same holds true with taxing churches. Seventy-one billion dollars a year would not wipe out the current total debt of $16.369 trillion. Yet it would hold church leaders accountable for their political participation, and bring them back to the same level as the ‘rest of us.’