Donald Andrew Henson II

What Constitutes Charity?

In Religion and Government, Religion and Money on May 6, 2012 at 11:31 pm

Salt Lake Temple in Salt Lake City, Utah, USA....

Your Tax Dollars at Work?

If I give a thousand dollars to my local opera company, and you give the same amount to Meals on Wheels, assuming we’re in the same tax bracket of say, 20% – we both get the same charitable deduction on our taxes. Opera is my hobby; feeding the poor and infirm is yours. Both organizations are non-profit, so we both deprive Uncle Sam of a couple hundred bucks. (Sounds like one of those 21st Century Insurance commercials.) Is this really the way things should work?

This is the issue Bill Maher raises this week on Real Time with Bill Maher – the nonsensical idea that all charitable contributions are created equal. In his trademark irreverent style, Mr. Maher ridicules the current system that shelters millions of dollars of much-needed revenue from the nation’s coffers.  (Read the transcript of his New Rules segment here. It sometimes takes a few days after the show’s initial airing for transcripts to appear.)

What exactly should constitute a charitable deduction? Perhaps a dozen years ago, when the government was running a surplus, it wasn’t a pertinent question. Today, however, with huge deficits, a staggering national debt, and no agreement in Congress about how to fix these problems, it’s time to have a look at what sort of activities the rest of us are subsidizing.

Last year, Mitt Romney made around 20 million dollars. If he paid his tithes, that means that 2 million went to the Church of Latter Day Saints. We know Mr. Romney paid an actual tax rate of 14%. This means that he didn’t pay the IRS around $280,000 that he would have otherwise owed. Since the US Treasury Department is not currently running a surplus, but a deficit, this means that someone – or a lot of someones – is going to have to make up that loss. What do we as Americans get in return for that loss of a quarter of a million dollars? I suppose that LDS might spend some of that 2 million dollars on feeding the poor and infirm; but I know for sure that they spend a lot of it sending young men in short-sleeve dress shirts out to neighborhoods all over America and the world in an effort to win converts. And in essence, you and I are subsidizing that activity.

It’s time to end this nonsense. If I give thousands of dollars to my church so they can have a swimming pool in the their new gymnasium, and you give thousands of dollars to the local homeless shelter, our contribution to society is not equal, and the IRS should stop subsidizing both activities equally. We can argue over the many other subsidies in our tax system – and we should – but certainly all of us can agree that food and shelter for the homeless and new swimming pools for upper-middle class Christians are entities that should not enjoy the same margin of entitlement. I’m not saying that churches shouldn’t be allowed to build whatever they want – I’m simply saying that I don’t want to foot part of the bill.

In fact, in a secular society, the government has no business encouraging the building of churches, mosques and synagogues or any other activity that is purely religious in nature; therefore, contributions that go in large part to that activity should not qualify for a tax deduction. However, curing drug addicts, giving job skills to the unemployed, finding new cures for illnesses – these are activities that benefit society as a whole, and should continue to qualify.

Government should neither encourage religious activity nor dissuade its citizens from participating in any way they see fit. All American citizens should financially support causes they wish to see thrive; only those causes that have positive benefits to the general populace – in this life – should be tax exempt.

Do you think your tithes should be tax deductible? Leave a comment and contribute to the conversation.


  1. I don’t even think the actual churches should be allowed to dodge taxes, much less the donors. These oganizations have become nothing more(or less) than a huge industry. Church, Opera, Hunger, Research, etc…..Can’t people do good for the sake of good without a tax break? If i spend ‘time’ doing charitable things instead of making more money with that time, does that get a tax break?

  2. I think that would be the next logical step – although that one is stickier, as the power to tax is the power to control, and I don’t see how you’d get around separation of church and state. However, think about it – corporate taxes are about 30% (although there are LOTS of loopholes), while churches pay nothing. This means any activity a church decides to engage in is automatically cheaper than it is for job-creating business – or for your average Joe. Why should a church get to build a cathedral with tax-free dollars, when everyone else is paying in after tax dollars?

  3. I agree that taxing churches on the amount of income that doesn’t actually go to charity work would be tricky. They would want to hide behind ‘separation’, but they already disregard that when it suits their agenda. In North Carolina, we vote tomorrow on an amendment designed to permanently ban gay marriage(obviously put forward by the Christian-Republican Fascia). I ran my errands today and passed ten churches without even trying. Exactly half of those churches were using their sign boards to influence the vote(even using the word ‘vote’ in two cases). Fairly certain that should void their tax-exempt status.

  4. As a secularist, I just don’t see why everyone puts up with this kind of thing – we’re in the midst of the worst economic times since the Great Depression, nothing guaranteeing that any of us will have jobs a few years from now – and all the politicians and priests can worry about are birth control pills, gay marriage, and illegal immigrants. Why do we as Americans put up with all this nonsense? Why aren’t we tarring and feathering our state and federal congressman for wasting their time and energy? Fiddling while Rome burns!

  5. The issue in this area appears to be two fold. First should individuals who donate to a religious charity revive a tax break and secondly should religious charities (churches) pay tax on their income. In Australia (where I am from) the first question has already be answered – no – well sort of. In Australia an individual who simply put money ‘in the plate’ can not claim a tax deduction (even if this is evidenced by receipts) but they can if the money goes to a registered charitable organization (whether it is run by a religious organization or not). In this contexts running a religious worship service or building a church building would not qualify but running a food bank or crisis housing service would. As a result most religious organizations who want to carry out this kind of charitable work have a separet arm which does this work so that donation to it can be tax deductible.

    The second issue is should the income of religious organizations (which do not have some other charitable function) be taxed. At the moment they aren’t but there is a growing call for all charitable organizations (whether they are religious or not) to meat a ‘public benefit’ test before qualifying for income tax exempt status. Such as test has already been implemented in the UK with mixed results.

  6. Wow! Sign me up for an Australian passport! This is exactly the sort of thing I’d like to see happen in the US. Churches should have to separate their charitable work (which has been determined to be of benefit to the public) from work that is religious, political, social, or entertaining in nature. Organizations wouldn’t be taxed on this kind of activity, nor would individuals who wanted to contribute to that activity. On the other hand, I’d like to see churches pay tax on any income that has no greater social value, and individuals who just pay their tithes shouldn’t get a write-off either. I’ll look into what’s happening in the UK – curious to know what’s ‘mixed’ about the results.

  7. […] wealth these shysters take in is completely tax-free; is it time for a change? Comments on a previous blog of mine seem to indicate that at least some people think so. TBN World […]

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