We mention Rev. White because he was the impetus for this article. White and his mansion came up in a class taught by lead author Ryan T. Cragun. In that discussion, the other authors asked how much Pastor White pays in taxes on his income. The answer wasn’t readily available. Only a handful of publications in the sociology of religion have examined the finances of religions, and they are largely aimed at telling religions how to increase donations.1 Nowhere did we find prior research summarizing and detailing religious finances and tax policy, so we decided to investigate it ourselves. This article is the result. It took some digging, but we think we now have a moderately clear understanding of the tax laws regarding religions in the United States. What we found suggests that religious institutions, if they were required to pay taxes the same as for-profit corporations do, would not have nearly as much money or influence as they enjoy in America today. In this article we estimate how much local, state, and federal governments subsidize religions.
However, before we get into our calculations, we think it best to address a criticism that is likely to be raised about this article. By suggesting that these groups should pay taxes, we are likely to be criticized by those who think that religions are largely charitable institutions engaged in beneficial service or charitable work and should therefore be exempt from taxes. This criticism requires responses at two levels, because there are two ways to think about religious “charity.” The first type of charity is the type that most people think of when they hear the phrase “serving people’s physical needs” (feeding and clothing the poor, building schools, and the like). The second type is different and involves addressing people’s “spiritual concerns.”
Council for Secular Humanism