Red states give more to churches, not charities

On Tuesday, The Washington Post’s political blog The Fix declared, “Red states give more to charity. It’s because of religion.”

Take that, all you agnostics and atheists.

If you were more like the people of faith in Republican states, you wouldn’t be such tightwads. You would do more to help the needy in your communities, at least more than the socialist big government programs that you are always pushing down real Americans’ throats.

Or something like that.

Writer Philip Bump cites data from The Chronicle of Philanthropy that shows the 17 states that gave the most money to charities in 2012 all voted for Mitt Romney that year. Those also happen to be the most religious states in the country, so Bump sees a religious divide.

The Chronicle of Philanthropy

The Chronicle of Philanthropy

The old warning that correlation is not causation comes to mind, but Bump is right, religion almost certainly plays some role in this. It’s just not the role he thinks. People don’t give more because of religion, at least not that way.

Religious people give a lot of money to charity because churches, synagogues and mosques count as charities in the eyes of the Internal Revenue Service. When they drop $1 or $20 on the collection plate on Sunday, it is a charitable donation.

To the IRS, a dollar given to the Thomas Road Baptist Church used to build an even grander palace for the Falwell clan in Virginia is the same as a dollar given to Meals on Wheels, the Red Cross or any number of charities that actually do some good in the world.

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People in red states, then, give a lot of money to “charities” that do not do a whole lot of charitable work, unless you count convincing people to believe in fairy tales and to vote against their self-interest as charity.

Sure, some churches put donations to good work, but a lot more of that money goes to proselytizing and keeping preachers in the sort of lifestyle to which they have grown accustomed in an age of prosperity gospel.

If The Fix had just looked in the Washington Post’s archives, it would have found a report from 2013 that reported about one-third of all charitable giving goes to churches, etc. That doesn’t even include religious schools that indoctrinate students and charitable organizations that happen to be aligned with a faith; it’s just the houses of worship.

Like so many things in the tax code, the biggest beneficiaries of tax breaks for charitable giving are the wealthy. A one-percenter who gives $1,000 to charity gets to shave that off his income at the highest marginal rate, and hence gets more bang for his buck than a middle-income family that might have little to no tax burden once all of the other deductions are accounted, if they itemize at all rather than take the standard deduction.

An excellent case can be made that the federal government should eliminate deductions for charitable donations, especially donations to churches – that whole First Amendment separation of church and state thing to start. Eliminating just the church-charity deduction would save the federal government about $12.5 billion per year.

But with a House of Representatives that is solidly in Republican hands, and a Senate that at best will be closely divide come January, the odds of repealing that handout are about as likely as Congress voting “under God” out of the Pledge of Allegiance.

Christian Trejbal is a freelance editorial writer, editor and political consultant based in Portland, Ore. He wrote exclusively for The (Bend) Bulletin and The Roanoke Times before founding Opinion in a Pinch. He serves on the board of directors of the Association of Opinion Journalists Foundation and is open government chairman. Follow him on Twitter @ctrejbal and facebook.

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