In this roundtable, Scott wants us to discuss whether religious organizations should be tax-exempt. The idea must be gaining some traction, because Scott’s predecessor at The Hill Country News had us write about this same topic about a year and a half ago.
My views on the subject haven’t changed in the last eighteen months: we live in a representative democracy, and if folks decide that religious organizations should pay taxes, then my congregation will start sending in the required funds. Nevertheless, I think there are a couple of important points that are often overlooked in this discussion.
To begin with, people have often have unrealistic ideas about the wealth of religious organizations. Five years ago, the University of Tampa published a study which estimated that taxing religious groups would generate an additional 80 billion dollars a year in revenue for the government. I’m not in a position to dispute that claim, but, whenever I see stories about this topic, those stories are almost always accompanied by photographs of pastors who lead mega-congregations.
But that is highly misleading. I’ll let the folks who adhere to other religions speak for themselves, but, in the United States, the average Christian congregation consists of less than 100 adults. That’s right; less than 100 contributing members; that’s the average. So, when we talk about getting lots of money from those wealthy religious organizations, we need to understand that most of those ‘wealthy’ outfits are barely able to keep the lights on and pay the worship leader.
But people are not only unrealistic when it comes to the supposed wealth of religious organizations; they are also unrealistic about what we could do with the taxes we might collect from those groups. For example, let’s just take the University of Tampa figure at face value: 80 billion dollars a year is a gargantuan amount of money. But do you know how much our government owes in unfunded liabilities? 122 trillion dollars. Those unfunded liabilities include Medicare and Social Security, along with the benefits for federal employees and veterans. And, according to the Treasury Department, in just four years, that number is expected to be 157 trillion.
To put all this in perspective, every twelve months, if we were to apply that 80 billion in potential new tax revenue to that 157 trillion debt, it would only take 1,962 years to pay it all off.
I’ll pause for a moment while you sit down and try to catch your breath.
Still there? Good, because, as you can see, we’ve got a lot of work to do. And rather than looking around for new sources of income that we can keep pouring into the bottomless abyss of the federal budget, what we need to do is start talking about how we are going to take responsibility for this mess and turn it all around.
In other words, this isn’t just an economics issue; it’s also a spiritual issue. If that’s something that you’d like to talk about, send me a note or give me a call. I’d love to visit.