The Election-Year Issue No One Is Talking About

The Election-Year Issue No One Is Talking About February 9, 2016

churches’ closed financial recordsLots of polls are monitoring the concerns of U.S. voters, and the usual issues come to the top: the economy and jobs, terrorism, dissatisfaction with government, and so on. What also seems to be an election-year staple is Pulpit Freedom Sunday, an initiative of the conservative Christian group Alliance Defending Freedom, in which pastors deliberately break tax rules against endorsing candidates. Said another way, it’s where American Christianity lobbies for even more handouts from the government. They want an exception to the Johnson amendment that prohibits nonprofits (all of them, not just churches) from endorsing or opposing political candidates.

An issue that never gets the attention it deserves is another exception, churches’ closed financial records. Every U.S. nonprofit can receive tax-free donations, but in return it must annually fill out an IRS 990 form that divulges to the public its income, expenses, assets, the salaries of its executives, and more. Every nonprofit, that is, except churches.

Why is this embarrassing exception not on more people’s radar?

I’m a nonbeliever, but let me emphasize that the issue here isn’t nonbelievers annoyed that they must help pick up the slack (the subsidy that American society gives religion because of its tax-exempt status is estimated at $83.5 billion per year). The issue also isn’t to challenge churches’ nonprofit status. Those are worthwhile conversations, but the real issue is the embarrassment the closed books should cause Christians. What do churches have to hide? Nothing, you say? It sure doesn’t looks like it. American Christians, this exception makes your religion look bad.

Christians should be leading the charge on this issue. They should be telling their representatives that churches don’t need the secrecy of closed financial records. The only benefit would be to hide fraud or financial excesses such as lavish mansions or excessive salaries. Does a high-profile televangelist deserve an enormous salary? I’m not sure that that’s how Jesus rolled, but whatever—simply make it public to the society that is helping to foot the bill.

You remember Jesus, right? He’s the guy who told the rich man, “Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.” What would Jesus say about churches’ secrecy?

If executives at public corporations and other nonprofits can make their salaries known, surely God’s representatives can do the same.

Isn’t it ironic that an atheist must point this out? If Christianity has something to teach society about morality, shouldn’t it be setting the example by taking the narrow path? And if God can critique the books—and consequently judge the church’s leadership in eternity—what possible concern could there be about letting the rest of us see?

Sensitive to the problem, some organizations within the Christian community have emerged to restore confidence. The Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability imposes on its members standards of financial accountability and transparency. Membership becomes a seal of approval. Another organization is MinistryWatch, which evaluates ministries for the benefit of potential donors. While these affect some big ministries, they do nothing to illuminate the workings of the vast majority of the 350,000 congregations in the United States.

In 2007, Senator Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) investigated six high-profile ministries that each had revenue in the $100-million-per-year range. He wasn’t an insignificant busybody; this was a U.S. Senator on the Senate Finance Committee, and understanding where the money went and trying to restore confidence and accountability was his job. However, the playing field has been so tipped in Christianity’s favor that five of them felt comfortable not cooperating, and they got away with it.

The solution is available and it already works for the 1.5 million nonprofits large and small that fill out IRS 990 forms every year. The 990 does the job, it’s been in use for 75 years, and it should be our window into the operation of all nonprofits, including churches. These forms are easily and anonymously accessible from sites like GuideStar or Charity Navigator. If a church has enough revenue to keep records, it can fill out the form. There is a four-page 990-EZ for organizations with less than $200,000 in revenue, and an even simpler 990-N for those with less than $50,000.

The change is trivial to make: simply amend the document “Instructions for Form 990” by striking the first four items from section B, “Organizations Not Required To File Form 990.” That’s it. The only difficult part might be the church leadership taking a deep breath and disclosing to the world how they spend your money.

Keep in mind who benefits from the status quo. Wouldn’t you like to see Scientology and other cults forced to disclose their assets?

Christians, I know that many in Congress are eager to subsidize Christianity, but tell them that you don’t want it. Tell them that your religion doesn’t need a crutch and that its activities can withstand the light of scrutiny like every other nonprofit. Secret financial records benefit no one except those with something to hide.

The overseer must be above reproach as God’s steward.
— Titus 1:7

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Image credit: Nick Ares, flickr, CC

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