Roundtable: Paying What You Get For

This is a 2018 roundtable discussion between John, Gary and I about religion’s financial place in a capitalist society. John and I slacked on a related subject, how the human brain prefers its dogma in packaged form.

Click here to read that load of hooey — Terry

T (Terry): I propose that religious institutions in the United States should have to pay taxes, just like any other for-profit organization, or follow stringent non-profit guidelines.

G (Gary): I vote yes to paying taxes. I believe in a secular society. Beliefs are free, but once you translate them into a business, pay the piper.

J (John): I think that they should remain tax-free, but should be held to the strictest of guidelines. I base this on the fact that faith-based charities provided something like $30 billion in social services last year; they wouldn’t have the resources to do this if they had to pay taxes. That $30 billion would have to come from somewhere, and that somewhere would most likely be federal, state and local governments (that is, tax revenues). At least, under the current system, donors can write off their donations against their taxes.

Churches should absolutely have to open their books to the feds (and state and local tax authorities, too), and any improper expenses should be disallowed. You can’t tell me there’s any justification for a church owning a private jet. If you run one of these megachurches and have to fly, you can fly commercial. Any church that owns a private jet should get a tax bill for whatever the taxes would be on the cost of that jet. And anyone who is stupid enough to send money to whoever runs such a church should be flogged.

T: Hey John, how much income does, say, the Catholic Church generate every year in the US?

J: It’s hard to say just how much the Catholic Church takes in annually in the US; estimates are all over the place. The midpoint of the range is in the area of $30 billion annually. They spent $4.4 billion on social services in 2017, which makes them by far the single largest non-governmental provider of these services. There are something like 17,000 Catholic churches in the US, and it costs a fair amount to keep the lights on in all those churches, plus priests do get paid (not much, around $30K a year plus room and board). Worldwide, the church is estimated to take in about $150 billion a year; that sounds like a lot of money, and it is, but you have to remember that there are roughly 1.3 billion Catholics in the world, so on a per-capita basis it’s not that much.

T: You can probably guess what I’m aiming toward with this line of questioning, so I’ll just ask you straight out, and wish you luck, lol.

How would taxed churches compares to charitable churches, in relative drain on/benefit to society? I think businesses that large could write off their charitible contributions, so I wouldn’t necessarily compare them straight across. But it’s a good place to start.

J: It’s been estimated that taxing churches would raise $71 billion annually. Now, that may be true, but that $71 billion in taxes would be at least partially offset by the fact that the churches wouldn’t have the resources to spend on social services that they now do.

T: I would argue that the majority of church charity is done on a quid-pro-quo basis, or as part of a promotional paradigm. Between the two – they aren’t mutually exclusive, but they are not the same thing – I would guess that taxing churches would not cost them nearly the actual tax load.

Add in the fact that all businesses operate on budgets, bottom lines, profit/loss statements and cost benefit analysis, I would be mightily surprised, shocked even, if the surviving churches didn’t manage to turn an even larger profit in the bargain.

Keep in mind that they have already sold themselves to their customer base. Their respective bases are as loyal or more loyal than Trump’s base. And we know how stubborn and – more importantly – pliable, gullible and sale-able they are.

So I don’t think it’s a zero-sum game. If they get taxed, it’ll do two things:

  1. Weed out the lightweights, freeing up space within cities that is being wasted by uncontrolled proliferation.
  2. Compel churches to join the neighborhoods as civic members, rather than acting as tiny sovereign pockets.

The second one might be the most important. If churches get civically involved, rather than standing aloof and above the fray, they would be neighborhood pillars.

Charity feeds us. Civic involvement teaches us to feed ourselves. My apologies for my cheap paraphrasing. Mark, John, Luke, Mathew … I’ll mail .6 cents to the church of his choice.

I’ll even pay the taxes.

G: I see what you did there.

J: I think that taxing churches would lead to consolidation. For example, there are 87 parishes in the Diocese of Bridgeport, which includes Bridgeport and the surrounding communities. Now, if the church was taxed, and had to be operated like a business, they’d probably close some of those and let the congregations merge. They’d be more efficient if there were, say, 50 churches instead of 87, but a church isn’t like a Walmart. You don’t get the same service in every church; pastors have different personalities, different things that they emphasize in their preaching. Some people are elderly and can’t go to any other church than the one that’s close by. Some people like their pastor, but wouldn’t want to drive halfway across town to go see him. Some people don’t speak much English and want to go to a church that has services in Spanish. I’m not saying that consolidation would necessarily be bad, but there are reasons that it’s not already happening; some of those reasons are beyond the financial, and those would need to be taken into consideration as well.

And most churches already ARE members of their neighborhoods. There’s a church-run event happening every night around here, one church or another. Churches do community outreach as a matter of course; they couldn’t survive long-term without replacing the older folks who die off.

I think that weeding out storefront churches and the ones that are clearly just money-making ventures is worthwhile, but where do you draw the line? What makes one church more valuable or more worth preserving than another? Business practices? Community services provided? Souls saved? I don’t have an answer for that, and I don’t know if there is an answer that would be workable in the real world.

T: I can see property taxes causing consolidation, but that’s exactly what I’m aiming for. If a church is strong enough to want to stay – it it’s established in its neighborhood – then it should have no issue with paying property taxes.

The fact that a larger church would have the power to shut down a functioning church without it’s say-so tells you all you need to know about what’s wrong with franchising. And, as I’ve said many times, it’s an abomination that will likely end capitalism as a viable government model if it’s not modified. At the moment, franchising acts like a virus.

T: I’ll leave that section to itself – John is almost always the expert on things like that – and move back to the center and state my own case.

It don’t see money as the central issue, or fairness. I think what makes me think how important it is comes from driving around Spokane and seeing just how many churches there are.

We are very much a bar-heavy city, and of course there are tons of gas stations and convenience stores. But there seem to be more churches than even bars and service stations. That strikes me as a strong message that we are making it far too easy to open churches, at least in Spokane. Those things aren’t cheap to build, and I doubt most of them are heavily populated. Some are, of course, but the majority are probably hosting a lot of empty seats outside of the major religious holidays.

I’m not an athiest or an agnostic, but I don’t buy any of the major religions, either, for the same reasons I don’t buy Donald Trump, Capitalism, Communism or brand name canned vegetables.

I don’t buy things that are sold to me AS the best, unless they can convince me that they ARE the best. And none of the organized religions can do that. I have yet to find one that even addresses known science, let alone explains their role within it, without saying, “trust me.”

And we all know what that means.

So, to be short and not belabor the point, I think religion, like any other sales organization, should have to pay to play like Gary said. The fact that they donate to charity is nice, and I think they should be entitled to latitude for charitible activities. But that doesn’t replace their obligation to larger society.

I don’t get to give my taxes to the homeless guy who pushes a shopping cart down Belt St.; I have to give it to the feds, and congress gets to decide what to do with it. I see no reason why churches should be exempt from that. If they build one in a cloud, I say let the cloud deal with them. But when they fill up space in our neighborhoods, soaking up our resources, I say let them toss a dollar in our collection plate, too.

I don’t feel strongly about it, necessarily, at least not strong enough to advocate. It’s just my opinion.

G: The Hell’s Angels do a charity Toy Run every Christmas around here. They are not tax exempt (not even organized crime earnings, though of course they don’t tend to be reporting those). Just sayin’.

J: I’ve gone to church pretty regularly for the past 17 years, not because I believe (I don’t) but because my wife believes and my attendance makes her happy. Truer words were never spoken than “happy wife, happy life”. Over the years, I’ve been to services of various denominations, and all of them have one thing in common; they all say that they, and only they, are the one true path to salvation. That would make me deeply skeptical even if I did believe.

That being said, I’ve seen the good that the church does in the community, and if my donations are being used for that purpose, I’m OK with it. The problem, though, as you said, is that you don’t get to choose where your donations are used. I don’t know if any of my donations were used to pay settlements with abused kids (I don’t think so, the diocese said that their insurance covered it) but I would have a serious, serious problem with that. That’s not what I donated for.

As far as taxing churches… I dunno. I can see the arguments both ways. I’m not aware of anyplace that DOES tax churches, so I don’t know of any test cases for how much revenue was raised, what was the effect on services, etc. It’s a conundrum, it is.

T: One reason for taxing churches is to battle the manipulative aspects. Paschal’s Wager. Churches are so big now, so dominant now, in large part because they have been given this unnatural advantage for centuries. Paschal’s Wager used to be “just in case.” Now it’s “or else.”

That centuries-long advantage allows them to “give” 40 percent of what your expert thinks they would have to pay, and take full credit in the bargain for their charity.

They’ve convinced even nonbelievers like you, John. I could go give that homeless guy with the shopping cart 40 percent of what I owe in taxes, keep the rest, and take credit for what a nice, giving guy I am. I’m hip. Where do I sign?

G:  The only problem with that is when you put it honestly, everyone can see it’s a hustle. 

J: Believing in gods is something that’s hard-wired in human beings. Every tribe of humans on earth, every single one, throughout history, has had some form of deity. At first they were invoked to explain things that humans didn’t understand, like what the sun was or why rain fell. Later on, “holy” men invoked the gods to expand their own power, to gain the three C’s we talked about once before (cash, control and vaginas). Yes, churches manipulate people, and always have. If people actually understood biology, evolution, physics, cosmology and so on, there’d be no need for religion. But until the mid-19th century and Charles Darwin, there was no challenge to the churches’ dogma on creation because science didn’t have a plausible answer. Now there ARE plausible answers to the big questions like “where did we come from?” and “how was the universe created?”, and as a result church membership is declining steadily and significantly.

People will always be manipulated into believing in gods. A lot of people inherit their religion like they inherit their eye color; their manipulation starts almost from the cradle, and it’s their parents who do it, not the Jesus-industrial complex.

A lot more fall for the snake-oil. TV evangelists didn’t get there by accident; they got there by being smoother and smarmier than thou, and they sell “Salvation!” for three low, low payments of $24.95. More manipulation.

As for me personally, I donate to the church because it makes my wife happy. The church indisputably does good work in the community; there are fourteen religiously-affiliated soup kitchens in Bridgeport, and having those helps to keep the homeless guy downtown from getting a knife somewhere and demanding money from people. And your observation on taxes is a false equivalence. You don’t pay taxes to keep the homeless guy off the streets. You pay taxes so your roads are paved, so the cops drive by your house once in a while, so your kid could learn in a real school instead of being taught by Mrs. Fishwick over at the Elks Club, and so Trump can buy some more $7,600 toilet seats.

T: I don’t buy the notion that religion is hard-wired into us. Control is hardwired into us —the need to identify our masters — but religion is only ubiquitous because we equate all origin stories with religion, and we equate all self-proclaimed control organizations as churches.

I mean, it’s Paschal’s Wager all over again. Because everyone is religious, religion must be part of us. I submit that this is very much a tail-wagging the dog situation. I wrote about it in college; here’s what I wrote.

The first one was about the need for a god, as opposed to an unseen, passive dogma:

Second one is about isolation and how origin stories got going:

The third prong, I think, is evolution itself. As finches adjust their beaks, humans adjust their brains. Religion isn’t hardwired so much as it’s attached to us as a kickstand, or training wheels. As the world homogenizes into a single race, a single overarching culture surrounding all the provincial cultures, the training wheels will disappear like vestigial tails.

Those who can’t shuck the training wheels will be at a decided evolutionary disadvantage, as their intellectually challenged beaks will no longer allow them to compete with those who have evolved.

I submit that this is not something in the future, but something that has been accelerating since the first anaerobic respiration of life on Earth. The internet and the global culture will be an exponential push down on the pedal.

J: Chickens and eggs, it’s a matter of perspective.

G: Could be. Did man create God, or did God create man?

T: All I know is, whichever one created woman, I gotta say well done, dude. 

J: Amen to that. Especially if Ida is watching. 


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Douglas Byzewski

I was on the board of a small church for years. If we would of been taxed we would have ended up paying nothing, because there was no profit. there. Since I was the treasurer (it was a very small church) I would of had to fill out a tax form every year which would have been a pain. I think you would find most of the churches except the mega churches would have to pay zero taxes. Most or not all the money goes to salaries and charities. I know one thing I would track at the end of… Read more »