America’s Church Subsidies

The release of Mitt Romney’s tax returns today show that he and his wife Ann are extremely generous financial supporters of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints and not big givers to non-religious causes. Dana Goldstein observes that this is fairly typical, the largest share of “charitable” giving in the United States is actually donations to churches and other religious institutions. When you combine religious institutions with educational institutions, you get a majority of the “charitable” giving in the country, even as very little of the money spent by either kind of institution is aimed at providing services to the needy.

I don’t think the income tax deduction for charitable giving will ever be done away with, nor do I really think it should. But people rarely mention that these non-profit institutions are also almost invariably exempt from property taxes, which seems insane. For any given volume of money flowing into the Mormon Church, why on earth should we specifically encourage it to plow the funds into land-acquisition and structure-building? If we believed that building more splendid temples would appease the Gods and give us good harvests this would make perfect sense, but none of our popular religions hold that as a tenet. The same is true for universities. It accomplishes nothing whatsoever for the District of Columbia to encourage downtown land to be used as George Washington University buildings rather than offices or apartments.