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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  • wmforr

    Key words: “a small Evangelical church”. The criticism I see here is of the megachurches–Mormons and their palatial tabernacle included. More power to your church for following the teachings of Christ. I am an atheist, and my neighbor is a small Evangelical church like your, and I have the greatest respect for them.

  • Ty Morgan

    Sure, why not, because God is always short on cash.

  • StraightGrandmother

    The American red Cross, The American Cancer Foundation, the Make a Wish Foundation, the Boys & Girls Club, The Red Cross, United Nations Childrens Fund, these are charities, not churches.
    Congregants donating to churches are really simply supporting their social structure. Coffee in the fellowship hall after services, Thursday night pot luck dinners in the fellowship hall, Ladies craft and Bible Study, the annual church picnic, the tour to the Holy Land etc. all these things are FOR the congregants, it is their social life, no different than people who join a country club.

    Show me the donations to the United Nations Childrens Fund by State, then we will see who are the big donor States.

  • StraightGrandmother

    Catholic Charities is really Catholic business masquerading as Catholic Charities. In fact they bill the government for 98% of their budget. It is like a jobs program for the Catholic Church. Catholic Hospitals, they bill Medicare, and Medicaid, Catholic Foster Parents services, they bill the States. It is really simply a jobs program arm of the Catholic Church.

  • StraightGrandmother

    Gee, just what we need, more political opinion from the pulpit….

  • RahimBlogger

    Does it necessarily matter whether or not the money is give to the charities? I mean, Republicans could be better off properly educating people about religions, as otherwise ending up with radical Christians just shooting people and not knowing the true value of religion. Leaving it to the Church to distribute money is a rather liberal approach, and Republicans should rather introduce some kind of system to control the funds distribution as some Churches still have a very traditional approach, and a proper education should be given to these people including taking responsibility for your actions and not taking a religion in a wrong way.

    (http://www.alternet.org/tea-party-and-right/10-worst-terror-attacks-extreme-christians-and-far-right-white-men)

  • BigGuy

    New England and Northern Midwest residents give the least to charities, including churches, but pay among the highest in taxes.

    Residents in New England and the Midlantic states paid more in taxes in colonial times and gave less to their churches and always have.

    I think this shows the influence of Calvin and Luther who both argued that it was the duty of the government, not the church, to care for the least among us. States founded by Puritans and Lutherans have more services for the poor and higher taxes. They always have. States founded by Baptists, like most of the South and West, provide fewer services to the poor, have lower taxes, and tell their citizens to get help from their church, not from the government.

  • 2karmanot

    Isn’t that special

  • StealthVoter

    “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.”

    The above is an ignorant statement with no attempt by the author to provide corroborating statistics. I belong to a small evangelical church with an annual budget of about $350,000. Since the budget must be voted on by the congregation, we have absolute transparency into where every dollar is spent and aside from the pastor’s modest salary, utility bills, etc. everything goes to charitable work. And that does not include countless hours spent by congregation members in delivering groceries to the poor (groceries donated by the members), working with homeless, abused women, illegal immigrants, etc. An interestingly enough, we’re a mostly conservative congregation and some of the hardest, most selfless workers are VERY conservative.

    Finally, though I consider myself a conservative, I’ve always been in favor of eliminating the tax-exempt status for churches, in order to eliminate any possibility of government control of religion. I think our pastor should be able to spout political opinion from the pulpit and if the tax-exempt status did not exist, she would be able to do that.

  • WilmRoget

    So, where is the evidence of the ‘real’ charitable giving by atheists? There must be soooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo much of it, that documenting it would be easy.

  • Donating to a church is essentially a way of allowing people to donate to benefit only other people who are exactly like them. I mean, who wants to donate to, say the Red Cross, and risk helping brown people?

    Foreign missionary groups are all about proselytizing. Spreading “the word” is the mission that comes before actually helping anyone.

  • SkippyFlipjack

    True, there is some level of proselytizing in almost every act of “charity” a church engages in. It would still be nice to have the things with no benefit at all to people outside the church singled out.

  • Seems to me that equating religious giving with charity is a fundamental part of the problem. People think they’re doing good, and doing right by their God, but really doing very little to help their communities. Sure, some churches have community outreach programs, or food banks, etc, but most, especially these “mega churches”, do next to nothing for their community outside of the church membership. It is essentially people donating to help themselves and their friends, which is the opposite of charity, and quite fundamentally selfish. A giant fancy cathedral-like building ultimately serves no one.

    The entire 501c system needs a complete revamp. It’s full of for-profit and for-greed organizations that serve nothing to benefit the public, and it is a joke to call them charities.

  • Except Utah, the state that gives by far the most to churches, also happens to have the highest consumption of porn in the country.

  • nicho

    Our local mega-church had a head minister that made over $250,000 a year (just like Jesus) in addition to what he made by selling copies and recordings of his sermons. He had 14 assistant ministers working under him. He had an expensive home here and an expensive home in Hawaii. When an elderly woman donated her BMW to the church, he had it shipped to his Hawaii abode. His downfall came when photos surfaced of him, his wife, and another couple frolicking nude in a hot tub.

    Some of these churches have what are effectively shopping malls in the complex, and they operate totally under the tax-exempt status of the church.

  • nicho

    Except that they hide behind their religious beliefs to set up “charities” that are blatantly discriminatory.

  • Democrats are scared shitless of the religious right. maybe someone can explain that to me but they keep treating them with kid gloves. I don’t think that’s going to last forever as their platform becomes increasingly unpopular but given the spinlessness of the Democratic Party I won’t be holding my breath.

  • Last year I had recording gig that took place at one of the local megachurches. I had no idea what those things were like on the inside but it was beyond any strawman I would have imaged of a nonprofit country-club playing at religion. It was a massive recreational complex with an auditorium where they have “church”. Giving to such an organization is not “charity”. It’s just tax-deductible entertainment expense.

  • emjayay

    Like Catholic Charities vs. Catholic Church?

  • Indigo

    I don’t know what to say about that. It’s typical of poorly educated communities to give their money to a speaker who can rant and wave their bible at the same time. Maybe it’s the best they’ve got for entertainment. I’ve advocated taxing churches for a long time now but that’s not an idea that generates much response. And I have no problem whatsoever taking the charitable-deduction option away from the churchianity. They should pay their way like a business.

  • Lawerence Collins

    Of course they give more to their churches of evil. It’s all anti-god and guns. That and porn! Don’t forget porn!

  • dommyluc

    As I always tell every Teabaggin’ fundie I meet: “Jesus is NOT going to pay your cable bill.”

  • MyrddinWilt

    Too limp?

    See what the GOP thugs are still doing to Lerner and the IRS for daring to enforce the law.

    The reason they pulled back though is probably because the Democrats think the political slush funds harm rather than hurt the GOP. Take the marriage equality issue for example. The GOP knows that it is a killer for them at the polls now but they still have Tea Party groups pushing it because they know that they can bilk the rubes with direct mail shots.

    Those mail shot operations are pure scams. Say they start with $100K, they place an order for a direct mail shot with a company they know and a few months later they have made $105K. They give $5K to some campaign group for ads and they go again. Meanwhile the company they know is the company they own. The mailshot cost them only $50K in paper, stamps, etc and they charged another $50K for handling the contributions of $155K. So the net is that the scammers have made $100K and the GOP had got at best $5K of benefit.

  • caphillprof

    I think you are being too kind. It’s not just that so much church money goes into the pockets of the “clergy” to lead a Fortune 500 CEO lifestyle, but lots of the money goes to direct political action, not just issue advocacy, but partisan election advocacy which the IRS is too limp to prosecute. These folk are getting tax breaks for their bigotry.

  • SkippyFlipjack

    Good points. The charity deduction absolutely needs revising — there’s no reason at all that people should get to deduct a single penny that goes into their pastor’s $10 million home.

    There’s no question that religious people are strongly inclined to give a lot to charity; the idea of the tithe (1/10th of income) is ingrained deep in the minds of many Christians. But churches should have to set up charitable giving funds that can only be used for real charity work, not general expenses or proselytizing, and only gifts to those funds should be deductible.

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