Donald Andrew Henson II

Posts Tagged ‘Government’

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.


Render Unto Caesar

In Religion and Government, Religion and Money on April 29, 2012 at 11:31 pm

Augustus of Prima Porta, statue of the emperor...

Before we get too far down the secularist road together, I think I should take the time to clarify the BIG IDEA that I hope will drive this blog for some time. It comes from what is probably one of the better known stories of the New Testament gospels. It seems there were some folks in the religious establishment that didn’t like Jesus very much, and they were always trying to get him to say something that might cause him to lose followers – or maybe even his head. One day they decided it would be a pretty nifty ploy to ask him what he thought about the very unpopular Roman tax Judeans were required to pay.  If Jesus supported the tax, he’d have an angry mob to contend with, and would for sure lose most of his followers.  If, on the other hand, he replied that those of the Jewish faith shouldn’t be required to pay it – his enemies would certainly be able to bring a case against him with the Roman authorities.

Mark 12:13-17 American Standard Version of the Bible tells it this way:

And they send unto him certain of the Pharisees and of the Herodians, that they might catch him in talk. And when they were come, they say unto him, Teacher, we know that thou art true, and carest not for any one; for thou regardest not the person of men, but of a truth teachest the way of God: Is it lawful to give tribute unto Caesar, or not? Shall we give, or shall we not give? But he, knowing their hypocrisy, said unto them, Why make ye trial of me? bring me a denarius, that I may see it. And they brought it. And he saith unto them, Whose is this image and superscription? And they said unto him, Caesar’s. And Jesus said unto them, Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s. And they marvelled greatly at him

Now there have been a lot of attempts to make this say something it doesn’t, but I think it’s clear to even the casual reader that Jesus wasn’t interested in making any political statements. If your government requires you to do something, you should do it.  If your god requires you to do something, you should do that as well.  I suppose there might be times when these requirements might be at odds with one another – and I’ll be talking about those kind of situations at length – but it seems that Jesus doesn’t have a problem with paying taxes. (Funny that American conservatives – many of whom are fundamentalist believers – do.)

However, I think there’s more at work here than just a simple discourse about taxation – and this is where my BIG IDEA comes in.  Jesus himself seems to be saying here that religion and civic duty are two different realms, and in a sense require different kinds of commitments. It is possible to be a good Christian and a good citizen at the same time – even if your government is not God-centered. We separate church and state so that everyone can enjoy the rights and liberties in common that are given us by our democratic from of government, while continuing to enjoy the benefits of whatever religion we choose.

It is my hope that Americans would begin to see this separation not as simply institutional, but at the personal level as well, to embrace the dichotomy, as it were. Unlike many secularist organizations, I ask no one to abandon their faith for the sake of democracy. I simply ask that they use their faith to guide them in their quest for God – but use the powers of reason, observation, and intelligence when they make decisions about our government. I believe a person can be a Christian and still vote for candidates that do not share their religious beliefs – but they vote for those candidates because they are capable of making decisions that are good for all Americans.

Perhaps George Holyoake, the British lecturer who coined the term ‘secularism’, said it best:

“Secularism is not an argument against Christianity, it is one independent of it. It does not question the pretensions of Christianity; it advances others. Secularism does not say there is no light or guidance elsewhere, but maintains that there is light and guidance in secular truth, whose conditions and sanctions exist independently, and act forever. Secular knowledge is manifestly that kind of knowledge which is founded in this life, which relates to the conduct of this life, conduces to the welfare of this life, and is capable of being tested by the experience of this life.”

Global climate change. Terrorism. Inequality. Poverty. These are problems that can perhaps be better solved by scientists, economists, and diplomats than by searching two-thousand-year-old texts. If I may re-phrase the words of Jesus – Americans should begin to give to their country the very best of their intelligence, reason, and rational thought, and continue to love their God with all of their hearts.  If we can do this, the rest of the world will marvel greatly.