Religion and taxes converged in the news last week in the wake of Hurricane Harvey. First, while Houston citizens were struggling to survive deadly flooding, President Trump found time to announce his tax plan, which revealed few specifics beyond the standard GOP strategy of trying to grow tax revenue by cutting taxes, which has always seemed straight out of the Bizarro World to me. Then some of the country’s most prominent religious leaders showed their true stripes. It started with Houston Pastor Joel Osteen refusing to open his 16,500-seat Lakewood Church to flood victims. This was followed by a group of evangelical leaders – some on Trump’s evangelical advisory board – “affirming” that condoning homosexuality is a sin. Of course, being gay or transgender or anything else these religious leaders deem inappropriate is a sin. That goes without saying (although they “affirmed” this as well). But even just believing people in the LGBT community deserve equal rights was “affirmed” a sin. Okay, so what do these two things – Republican tax policy and religious duplicity/bigotry – have in common (besides stupidity)? They both cost us a boatload of money. Let’s start with the inane philosophy of trickle-down economics. The government generates income through taxes. It consistently takes in less revenue than it spends to where we are drowning in red ink. We must annually raise the debt ceiling to stay afloat. A reasonable person might say, “Hmmm, if we need more tax revenue we better raise taxes; either that or reduce spending.” The Republican solution to this is to lower taxes, especially for those who could afford to pay more – in some cases much more – and not suffer one iota. The idea is that these super-wealthy folks will invest their unnecessary windfall back into the economy, spreading jobs and prosperity to the rest of us. This doesn’t actually happen. It usually results in recession. And even Republicans acknowledge that if it doesn’t happen, then yes, tax cuts will add to the budget deficit, so they try to balance tax cuts with reductions in spending as well. What actually happens is the wealthy get wealthier while the rest of us carry the burden of a government without enough revenue to provide all the services it can to its citizens. Now, what does any of this have to do with religion? I’ll tell you. Religious institutions pay no taxes – no income taxes, property taxes, sales taxes, Social Security taxes, nothing. Donations to religious groups are fully tax-deductible. Priests, rabbis and other religious leaders can write-off many of their personal living expenses. It has been estimated that these and other tax breaks for religious institutions cost the government more than $80 billion a year. These are tough economic times. The government needs money. It needs it more than ever now that Republicans are running the show. Religious institutions do not provide a public service – at least not to everyone, which is what defines a service as public. They are deemed 501(c) (3) charities but they are not charities. Some may do charity work, but so do multibillion-dollar corporations. Granting tax-exempt status to religious institutions seems like government endorsement of religion, which would seem to violate separation of church and state. Yet the law has actually said that taxing religious institutions would involve more government intervention in religion than granting them tax-exempt status. In other words, no matter what religion you are, or whether you are any kind of believer or not, you are subsidizing a multitude of religions to the tune of more than $80 billion dollars a year. Among those you are subsidizing are people like Joel Osteen and those evangelical leaders who “affirmed” you are a sinner if you don’t join them in condemning homosexuality. I don’t know about you, but this is not how I want my tax dollars (or lack thereof) spent. Hey, I’m no saint (pun intended) and I am not bashing religion. I just think the “religion industry” should have to pay taxes like everyone else. Their failure to do so is costing us a lot of money we don’t have. That, to me, is the real sin.
Howard Harrison is author of The Great Divide: Story of the 2016 U.S. Presidential Race (www.howardharrisonauthor.com and retail booksellers).