What Do Churches Have to Hide? The Solution Is Simple.

What Do Churches Have to Hide? The Solution Is Simple. March 4, 2019

Nonprofit organizations in the U.S. make a contract: society allows donations to be tax deductible, and in return those organizations make their financial records public to show that they used that income wisely. Every nonprofit fills out an annual IRS 990 form to make its cash flow public—every nonprofit, that is, except churches.

Not only is this exemption unfair, it makes churches look like they have something to hide. Given past financial scandals, some do, but this secrecy makes most churches look undeservedly bad. Christians should demand that this exemption be removed. This change would improve the reputation of American churches at a time when a little reputation polishing would be welcome.

This article has four sections: a brief overview of the problem enabled by the exemption, arguments against removing the exemption, arguments for removing it, and a conclusion.

Church scandals

This isn’t an indictment of all churches, just the bad actors hiding behind the good ones.

One problem enabled by secrecy is fraud. “In 2000, an estimated $7 billion was embezzled by leaders of churches and religious organizations in the United States. Several other studies have suggested that about fifteen percent of all individual churches will suffer embezzlement.”[1] Worldwide, the estimate of fraud is $35 billion annually.[2][3]

Scandals of various sorts have brought down famous church leaders—Jimmy Swaggart, Ted Haggard, Mark Driscoll, and others.[4] James MacDonald of Harvest Bible Chapel is just the most recent.[5] Even sex scandals sometimes have a financial component, such as the hush money paid by Jim Bakker.[6]

Secret finances have sheltered outlandish salaries, like Jim Bakker’s $1.6 million more than thirty years ago.[7] While that salary wasn’t illegal, it was embarrassing. It’s only fair that the people who are ultimately paying know how their money is spent.

Church finances can be hidden even from church leadership. In James MacDonald’s church, “one elder resigned over this, after asking to see the finances and being overruled by the rest of the board.”[8]

Of course, the presence of a few bad actors doesn’t mean that churches don’t do good work, that Christians are bad people, and so on, but that’s precisely the point. When good and bad churches blend together into an indistinguishable gray mass, public financial disclosure would let the good churches be seen for what they are.

Contrast the Catholic Church’s sexual abuse lawsuits, paid using church funds,[9] with conventional nonprofits. Yes, there have been scandals with them—excessive CEO compensation with United Way in 1992 and the Smithsonian Institution in 2007, for example[10]—but all evidence argues that financial transparency has prevented far worse. Churches would benefit from following their lead.

The status quo is broken. It’s ridiculous to imagine that all church financial scandals are behind us. Fortunately, we have a simple solution: the IRS 990 form has been around for 75 years, it’s tuned for large and small nonprofits, and filing one annually should be mandatory for all of them.

Let’s move on to consider arguments pro and con mandatory filing of 990s. First, the arguments against.

CON #1: Churches are trustworthy

The assumption that churches are inherently trustworthy was the reason churches were given the exemption in the first place in 1943,[11] but the summary above shows that that assumption fails. Churches are run by imperfect people, and people sometimes do bad things. The Bible says, “We know that anyone born of God does not continue to sin,”[12] but if church leaders aren’t sinning, they’re certainly doing something questionable. Daystar spent half a million dollars sponsoring a Christian NASCAR driver, Ken and Gloria Copeland live tax-free in a $6.3 million “parsonage,”[13] and Mark Driscoll spent $210,000 of church funds to buy his way onto the New York Times bestseller list.[14]

When outlandish expenses are made public, credibility can be lost. Pastors Creflo Dollar, Jesse Duplantis, and Ken Copeland publicly asked for extra donations for new business jets costing tens of millions of dollars, and the public responded with ridicule. One commenter asked, “Can a business jet pass through the eye of a needle?”[15]

CON #2: Let disclosure be at the churches’ option

This argument wants to let church leaders decide to open the books or not, as they choose, but in practice they choose secrecy. In one list of America’s biggest evangelists, seven are religious nonprofits, and they all file 990s as required. The remaining 23 are churches (“televangelists” might be more accurate), and none file 990s.[16] Of the 250,000 churches registered with the IRS, only two percent file 990s.[17]

CON #3: This violates the First Amendment

Would requiring the filing of a 990 form be a violation of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution?

It would not. The rules of tax-exempt status have nothing to do with religion. To encourage nonprofit organizations that do good for society (including churches), the IRS created the 501(c)(3) category. Donors can give to these organizations tax free. In return, the organizations make public their finances by filing annual 990 forms.

This demand for transparency is no special burden on churches. In fact, the reverse is true: giving an exemption unfairly benefits religion and so violates the First Amendment’s requirement that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.” Removing the exemption is no violation of rights when it shouldn’t have been given in the first place, especially when churches have shown that they can’t self-govern.

Churches aren’t a law unto themselves, and they must obey laws just like any other organization—laws about building codes, public safety, protection of copyright, liability, and so on. Financial transparency is just one more obligation of nonprofit organizations that are good citizens within society.

CON #4: Filing a 990 is too burdensome

We don’t hear church leaders arguing that it’s too big a burden for the 1.5 million nonprofits who now must fill them out; rather, they’re just saying that it’s too much of a burden for them. No, if other nonprofits can fill out a form, churches can too.

The 990 has evolved in the 75 years that it’s been around, so any church’s worries about the form have been raised long ago. There is a four-page 990-EZ version for organizations with less than $200,000 in annual revenue, and a 990-N for organizations with less than $50,000 in revenue. The 990-N takes minutes to complete, so the fear of overburdening a church with a tiny congregation is unfounded.

Completed 990s were first made public in 1950, organizations were obliged to mail one to anyone who asked by 1996, and they began to be put online in 1998.[18] Today, a researcher can use sites like Foundation Center, Charity Navigator, or the IRS itself to bring up financial data on any nonprofit in seconds. For example, the 990 for Pat Robertson’s Christian Broadcasting Network is here. Income, expenses, assets, and the salaries of key employees—it’s all there. In 2016, it had $308 million in revenue and $143 million in assets, and Pat Robertson’s salary was $478,299.

What if the church doesn’t keep good financial records so that filling out the form is difficult? (The stereotypical example might be the disorganized small business owner dropping a shoebox stuffed with last year’s receipts onto the accountant’s desk.) Putting good financial management practices into place might be difficult, but they would be their own reward. “We’re too disorganized” is no reason for an exemption. Good financial management is proper stewardship of the money the congregation has entrusted to the church.

Five years after removing the exemption, once the 990 becomes assumed and churches are comfortable with the process, I predict that almost no one would advocate for going back to secret finances.

CON #5: It’s unnecessary, because we provide information to our members

Many churches share financial information with their members (though not all do), but this is not enough. Tax-exempt status is a financial bonus to nonprofit organizations, but the lost tax revenue must come from somewhere. Less tax on nonprofits means more tax on ordinary citizens. Since they’re footing the bill, they deserve to know, whether or not they’re members of a particular church.

Even when members can technically access financial information, this can be a difficult route. Asking a pastor to see the books might imply criticism and could harm a parishioner’s standing within the church. By contrast, access to a 990 is anonymous.

CON #6: We already have a solution—the ECFA

The Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability was created in 1979 in response to public pressure from mainline churches against televangelists. Member organizations make a limited financial disclosure to the ECFA (not to the public), and ECFA membership provides a public seal of approval.

But why invent something new when the 990 had been in place for decades? Christian leaders were trying to complete the awkward sentence, “Churches need secrecy and can self-regulate because ___,” and they opted for transparency with training wheels. Yet again, this suggests their members have something to hide.

We’ve had forty years with the ECFA, and church scandals continue. Self-regulation relies on the consent of the regulated, and bad actors can simply not bother to join. The ECFA has 1700 members, of which only 150 are churches[19] (out of 330,000 churches in the U.S.), so it is no satisfactory alternative to true financial transparency.

CON #7: It’s not the government’s job to judge churches’ conduct

“Government should not be determining if a minister is living too lavishly. It’s not for the government to determine if someone really needs an airplane for their ministry. That’s just not something government should be getting into.”[20]

That’s a fair point, but that’s not the goal of mandatory 990s. With anonymous access to financial information, parishioners (not government) can decide if their church is using their donations wisely. If they disapprove, they can find a better fit by looking into other churches.

This is one of the advantages of the 990—it’s already being collected from other nonprofits, and adding churches to the list doesn’t increase the IRS bureaucracy. Checking on churches’ financial stewardship can be crowdsourced, a nice application of the “sunlight is the best disinfectant” principle.

CON #8: Disclosure would embarrass some churches

This is not an argument any church leader would admit to, but it’s likely the real reason. U.S. churches don’t want public critique of how they spend their $34 billion in annual income.[21]

Conventional nonprofits file 990s, and publicly traded corporations file disclosures mandated by the Securities and Exchange Commission. Their disclosures may invite uncomfortable questions, but they muddle through. If a few churches need to scramble to clean up their acts before their finances become public, that’s a good thing.

Let’s now consider the pro arguments, those in favor of mandatory 990 filing for churches.

PRO #1: The status quo embarrasses all churches

This is the dual of the previous argument, and it may be the most powerful. Church scandals tar all churches. You can argue that your church is above reproach, but that’s just what the bad church was saying before its scandal became public. Make finances public, let them speak for themselves, and the churches that can be proud of their financial stewardship will separate from the rest.

PRO #2: If God knows, why can’t we all know?

From the Christian standpoint, any human disapproval is inconsequential compared to God’s. God knows everything, including how church leaders spend the money entrusted to them. If God is satisfied with the finances, how could a church be embarrassed to open its books to society? Said the other way around, if they’re embarrassed to show society, they’ve got some serious explaining to do before God.

Those church leaders who hesitate to open their books to the public place man before God as an authority. One wonders if they believe their own story.

PRO #3: The Bible encourages financial openness

It shouldn’t be necessary to argue that financial transparency is a cornerstone of good church management, but the Bible supports this principle.

We want to avoid any criticism of the way we administer this liberal gift. For we are taking pains to do what is right, not only in the eyes of the Lord but also in the eyes of man. (2 Corinthians 8:20–21)

Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us. (1 Peter 2:12)

PRO #4: Transparency discourages impropriety

Open financial records mean that church members can monitor church operations. 990s aren’t the same as on-demand access to the church’s financial spreadsheet, but they can be read anonymously and are far better than the status quo.

Anyone who can spend the church’s money would know that it’s more than just God looking over their shoulder, which should reduce the temptation toward both embezzlement and unjustifiable expenses. Any financial scandals that are still possible might be caught earlier when they are smaller and less embarrassing.

This principle that openness encourages honesty pushed Billy Graham and some associates in 1948 to write the Modesto Manifesto, a set of guidelines for avoiding scandals that were a problem among Christian leaders even then. His organization published annual financial audits, and it summarized the financial results of revival meetings in local newspapers.[22]

Knowing that self-imposed rules could be broken, Graham constrained himself with these external rules. According to his biographer, “He has never thought that he was beyond temptation or that anything he wanted to do was all right.”[23]

PRO #5: Transparency is honest to taxpayers

The subsidy that American society gives religion because of its tax-exempt status is estimated at $83 billion per year.[24] The 990 would be the way for churches to say to the American taxpayers who are picking up the slack, “Thank you, and here’s how we’re spending the money you gave us.” Removing the exemption would also be fair to the other nonprofits who must fill out the 990.

Christians might defer to church leadership on spiritual matters, but it doesn’t follow that taxpayers should defer to church leadership on financial matters.

PRO #6: We find transparency in other contracts

Anyone who gets a patent receives legal protection for the invention in return for revealing the secrets of the invention. And any organization that gets 501(c)(3) status receives tax-free donations in return for opening its books.

Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, said, “Having tax-exempt status is a great privilege, and in exchange for that privilege, all other groups must file a detailed report annually to the IRS and the public on how we spend donations. . . . Why should churches be exempt from basic financial reporting requirements? Equally important, why would churches not wish to be accountable?”[25]

PRO #7: Transparency is honest to church members

American taxpayers are subsidizing religion, but it’s the members themselves who are directly footing the bill. Not only must churches open their books to be fair to those members, but polls show that members want more transparency.

Financial secrecy helped keep the Catholic sexual abuse scandals hidden for so long, and Catholics are pushing back by demanding more financial transparency.

A 2002 Gallup poll found that sixty-five percent of Catholics agreed that the church should be more accountable for its finances, and seventy-nine percent wanted bishops to give a complete account of the financial impact of sexual abuse victim settlements. A study conducted by the National Leadership Roundtable on Church Management found that a majority of Catholics wanted “full financial disclosure” from the church [emphasis added].[26]

That certainly seems fair, given that their donations fund the settlements.

Another case is Daystar, a Christian television network with over $200 million in assets and which takes in donations of $35 million annually. As a church, its books are secret, but records made available due to a lawsuit show that far less of the donations are given away as charity than promised. One experienced nonprofit analyst said, “Daystar needs to tell people that only about 5 percent of their contributions are going toward hospitals, churches, needy individuals.”[27]

Is 5 percent a lot or a little? Does it match what Daystar has promised on air or not? That’s not for me to judge, but it is for the donors to judge. Covert finances are not honest.

PRO #8: What cults are hiding behind this IRS loophole?

Scientology filed thousands of nuisance lawsuits against the IRS to protest its loss of church status. It finally dropped its lawsuits in return for nonprofit status.[28] What churches would you like to see the finances of? Hare Krishna? The Unification Church (“the Moonies”)? Nxivm? You may think that your church is operating ethically, but what about the other guys?

The Freedom From Religion Foundation argues that financial secretiveness allowed Jim Jones to hide the early signs of his church’s meltdown that led to the 1978 massacre of almost a thousand church members in Jonestown.[29]

And it would be good to get the IRS out of the church-defining business. While the IRS never reviews or assesses religious doctrine,[30] it does have a 14-point checklist[31] to decide if an organization is a “church.” The IRS says, “Because beliefs and practices vary so widely, there is no single definition of the word church for tax purposes. The IRS considers the facts and circumstances of each organization applying for church status.”[32]

With no 990 loophole, the IRS wouldn’t have to decide who is and who isn’t a church.

PRO #9: There is no argument for secrecy

Fill in the blank: “In our church/denomination, we want to maintain financial secrecy because ___.” Do you want to stand before the congregation and justify the explanation?

Or imagine it from the other direction. Suppose churches have been using the 990 for years, and everyone is accustomed to the transparency. Now someone proposes that the IRS provide a loophole to exempt churches from that requirement, and you need to make the argument. How would you argue for financial secrecy in the future?

Churches should be more financially transparent than the Mafia.

PRO #10: The 990 makes church governance easier

Church scandals often center around charismatic leaders who bully others in church leadership to get their way. Someone on the church board might suggest more financial transparency to the membership. Perhaps it’s criticism of an extravagant expense or a suggestion to apply the financial checks and balances used in business. They’re all shot down by the charismatic leader. Board members could push harder, but they risk their position on the board and their reputation within the church. Let’s make it easier on these church leaders who try to do the right thing by resolving this debate for them.

Here’s one take on the difficult position of these church leaders.

Those who confront pastors . . . may be told that they are “unsubmissive” or “disloyal”. . . . Churches, as they currently exist, actually foster and shelter malfeasance. The dynamics of religious leadership discourage laypeople from pressing for financial accountability even in more democratic polities, suggesting that it is imperative for the government to apply the same laws to churches that mandate transparency for other nonprofits.[33]

Mandatory 990s are like round thermostats. In the 1950s, industrial designer Henry Dreyfuss noticed that rectangular thermostats were often mounted on the wall slightly crooked. He designed the popular Honeywell round thermostat that couldn’t be mounted on the wall crooked. The opportunity to mount it wrong was gone. 990s are like that—the debate about how open to be and who is allowed to see what information is gone. Constraints can be freeing.

The risk to board members with a potentially bullying pastor is also reduced. The hands of the board are tied—churches must be financially transparent; the debate is over; next issue. The IRS becomes the hero in this story, because they took the burden from the board.

PRO #11: More transparency might mean more revenue

Is the IRS 990 bitter medicine, or is it the route to greater church income?

Financial transparency helps revenue in two ways. First, it gives members more confidence that their money is being spent wisely. Second, it reduces the chance that one church scandal will contaminate the entire community. Members can state that their church isn’t like the one with the scandal and back that up with data.

One study found that “giving rates within the Catholic Church varied in proportion to transparency and accountability” and almost half of respondents to another said they’d be more generous “if [they] understood better what the church does with its money.”[34]

At a time when churches nationwide are scrambling for members, wise financial stewardship is a nice selling feature. Your church might be more generous in helping the less fortunate than other churches in your neighborhood, but without universal 990s, how would anyone know?

Conclusion

Our situation is a little like that of the food industry in the U.S. in the late 1800s. Milk was sometimes diluted with water infused with chalk or plaster to cut costs. Pepper was sometimes diluted with charred rope or dirt. Formaldehyde and borax were food preservatives. Some food dyes contained lead or arsenic, and so on.[35] The food industry was constrained by few laws, and they encouraged politicians to keep it that way.

The food industry was in bed with politicians in the late 1800s, and church leaders are in bed with politicians today. Filing 990s might be embarrassing, so politicians removed that little problem for their friends. Churches and politicians (with some exceptions) like the status quo.

The food industry liked the status quo, too, but with the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906, there was a new sheriff in town. Adulterating or mislabeling food and drugs had become a crime. The food industry and politicians, who would theoretically be responsible for identifying and solving the problem, were actually part of the problem. The industry couldn’t be trusted to police itself. Change came after citizens woke to the problem and demanded change. Press about the science behind the problem plus exposés like Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle (1904) made the difference.

That’s the lesson for financial transparency today. Trusting churches to police themselves doesn’t work, and change apparently won’t come through church leadership, who have assured politicians that the exemption is a political third rail. Maybe they can eventually be cajoled to do the right thing, but they won’t be leading the charge. Change will come after citizens see the problem and demand change. Better: Christians, we need you to see the problem and demand change.

There are many beneficiaries from financial transparency. Not only are typical Christians the biggest winners from this change—by opening church finances that had looked suspicious—they’re the ones with the power. Politicians will listen to them.

At the turn of the twentieth century, we needed new science to build the case for food safety. Today, we don’t need anything new to make the case for financial transparency, since the case is obvious to anyone interested enough to look for it. What we need is a critical mass of Christians demanding change.

My Christian friends, raise this topic with others in your congregation. Forward them this article. Write a letter to the editor. Complain to your congressperson. Do something to make this an important topic of conversation.

Don’t look to church leadership to do it for you. This is your fight, and you’ll be the beneficiary.

Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants;
electric light the most efficient policeman.
— Future SCOTUS Justice Louis Brandeis

.


Acknowledgement: I found a law journal article particular helpful, both for the authority of its comments on constitutionality and its extensive research: “The Law and Financial Transparency in Churches: Reconsidering the Form 990 Exemption” by John Montague.

[1] John Montague, “The Law and Financial Transparency in Churches: Reconsidering the Form 990 Exemption,” Cardozo Law Review 35, no. 203 (2013): 232.

[2] Veronica Dagher, “Trust in the Lord…But Check Out the Church,” Wall Street Journal, May 7, 2012.

[3]Status of Global Mission, 2014,” International Bulletin of Missionary Research 38, no. 1, see item 56 (Ecclesiastical crime).

[4] Montague, 236.

[5] Libby Anne, “The Harvest Bible Chapel Scandal in a Nutshell (And Why You Should Care),” Love, Joy, Feminism blog, February 20, 2019.

[6] Montague, 218.

[7] Montague, 218.

[8] Libby Anne.

[9] Montague, 238.

[10] Montague, 222–3.

[11] Montague, 230.

[12] 1 John 5:18; see also 1 John 3:6–9.

[13] John Burnett, “Can A Television Network Be A Church? The IRS Says Yes,” NPR, April 1, 2014.

[14] Husna Haq, “Pastor reportedly buys his way onto New York Times bestseller list,” The Christian Science Monitor, March 7, 2014.

[15] Washington Post, “Televangelist wants his followers to pay for a $54-million private jet. It would be his fourth plane,” Los Angeles Times, May 29, 2018.

[16]Thirty Leading Religious Broadcasters,” NPR, April 1, 2014.

[17] Leonardo Blair, “Growing Fraud Sucks Billions From Churches Annually; This IRS Fix Could Help, Expert Says,” The Christian Post, August 12, 2018.

[18] Montague, 213, 224, and 229.

[19] Montague, 256.

[20] John Burnett.

[21] Montague, 206.

[22] Montague, 254–5.

[23] Montague, 255.

[24] Dylan Matthews, “You give religions more than $82.5 billion a year,” The Washington Post, August 22, 2013.

[25] Freedom From Religion Foundation, “FFRF sues IRS over preferential treatment of churches,” Freethought Today, Jan/Feb 2013.

[26] Montague, 252.

[27] John Burnett.

[28]Scientology and law,” Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia, Wikimedia Foundation, Inc.

[29] Annie Laurie Gaylor, “To avoid another Jonestown, reform IRS church reporting policy,” Freethought Now!, November 19, 2018.

[30]Tax Guide for Churches & Religious Organizations,” IRS Publication 1828, 2015.

[31]‘Churches’ Defined,” IRS.

[32]Tax-Exempt Status for Your Organization,” IRS publication 557, 2018.

[33] Montague, 243–4.

[34] Montague, 247–8.

[35] Ari Shapiro, “How A 19th Century Chemist Took On The Food Industry With A Grisly Experiment,” NPR, October 8, 2018.

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Polytropos

    Church members deserve to have a convenient, anonymous way to access their church’s financial information. They deserve to know how their money is being spent. Prospective members deserve to know if the church they’re thinking of joining is fiscally responsible. The general public has a right to know, because with tax-exempt status comes public responsibility. Yes, I agree that government should not be determining if a minister is living too lavishly, but his congregation has every right to make an informed decision on whether their church is using money appropriately.

  • carbonUnit

    Lovely post, full of useful links!

    Here’s the kind of thing that happens when a government entity trusts a “Christian Leader”, apparently not bothering to audit properly.
    http://www.louisianaweekly.com/former-sclc-chair-raleigh-trammell-convicted/

    Former Southern Christian Leadership Conference Board Chairman Raleigh Trammell has been convicted on all 51 felony charges filed against him in Dayton, Ohio in connection with a sham home-delivery food program loosely modeled after the successful meals on wheels federal program.

    • How was this possible from such a good Christian?

      • Michael Neville

        Jesus has forgiven him because he asked Jesus to do so.

      • carbonUnit

        mumble…mumble…free.will…mumble…mumble…mumble…mysterious.ways…mumble…
        mumble…da.devil.made.him.do.it!…mumble…..

      • Kit Hadley-Day

        oh please, that old Scotsman will come wandering by any minute looking for salt

  • Tawreos

    I love 990’s! After Obergefell it was a great deal of fun to see what happened to the donations to some of the loudest hate groups opposing gay marriage. They all saw significant drops to their incomes, it was glorious. Churches are given too much leeway when it comes to non-profit status. They do not have to apply for the status and they don’t have to fill out the 990. They need to prove they need the status just like every other non-profit out there

  • RichardSRussell

    About 8 years ago, Bob was kind enuf to run a guest column from me on “The Church As Corporation”. Nothing has changed since then, so the essay is still relevant.

  • Lex Lata

    Excellent work, Bob. I say that both as a pompous attorney and as someone currently working with some peers on the nitty-gritty of possibly incorporating a non-profit association. Interestingly (okay, YMM definitely V), we don’t view the 1023 and 990 filings as obstacles or chores, but rather as key elements of a framework for transparency and accountability to members. Moreover, with the ready availability of accounting and tax software, even those of us with arithmophobia have no reason to gripe about the IRS paperwork.

    • Excellent attitude. I think the “it’s a pain” is the biggest actual obstacle, but stepping into the unknown always is. Pretty much all churches will agree that it was worth it 5 years later.

    • Michael Neville

      As an accountant, specifically an auditor, I’m in favor of transparency. Also I’ve looked at the Form 990 and it’s not difficult to fill out as long as your books are in reasonable order. And if your books aren’t in order, that’s when auditors like me should come knocking at your door.

  • Doubting Thomas

    Churches don’t want the general public to know how very little they actually spend on charity. It could ruin the public perception of churches as effective charities. Even most churchgoers would probably be surprised at the real numbers. I don’t think there’s a church around today that wouldn’t end up on the “bad” list of any charity watch group.

    • Better to have people think that you’re a fraud than to open the books and prove it?

      • Kit Hadley-Day

        silence is better than confirmation, without that the ‘doing good deeds’ thing i don’t think religion has a leg to stand on as something that should be supported by society, if a bunch of people want to mumble in cold buildings then let them pay for it, not sure why i should have to support their weird habit, i mean they aren’t giving me money to pay for the computer games i like to play

        • Agreed. The first step, though, is opening the books. After that, we can consider whether churches deserve to be nonprofits.

        • Kit Hadley-Day

          clearly they do not, even if they where the most efficient charities in the world, the evil they perpetrate would make them a social mill stone.

        • Lark62

          Which answers the question on why they want those books kept closed. As long as they stall in step 1, we can’t move on to step 2.

      • Doubting Thomas

        Better a few hold on to the belief that churches are good charities than to open the books and have everyone know otherwise.

  • skl

    This seemed to be a change in tenor for Cross Examined.
    Almost like a C.E. pep rally for the “good churches”.

    This change would improve the reputation
    of American churches…
    This isn’t an indictment of all churches, just the bad
    actors hiding behind the good ones.

    … Of course, the presence of a few bad actors doesn’t mean
    that churches don’t do good work, that Christians are bad people, and so on,
    but that’s precisely the point. When good and bad churches blend together into
    an indistinguishable gray mass, public financial disclosure would let the good
    churches be seen for what they are.

    … There are many beneficiaries from financial transparency.
    Not only are typical Christians the biggest winners from this change…

    … This is your fight, and you’ll be the beneficiary.

    P.S.
    It would be interesting to see your list of the “good churches.”

    • It would be interesting to see your list of the “good churches.”

      My list? I think you’re confused.

      • skl

        No. As per your quotes, your list.

        • No idea what you’re talking about. No interest in finding out, either.

        • skl

          Just talking about your words. Again:

          This isn’t an indictment of all churches, just the bad
          actors hiding behind the good ones
          public financial disclosure would let the good churches be seen for what they are.

          Just curious which you think are “the good churches”.

        • Susan

          Just curious which you think are “the good churches”.

          The ones who do what they say they’re going to do with the money.

          The ones who use the bulk of the money to help the poor when they claim that is why they are collecting money.

          Or the sick.

          Etc.

        • Ignorant Amos

          Ya can count all of those on the fingers of no hands.

        • Susan

          Ya can count all of those on the fingers of no hands.

          I honestly don’t know. There are so many communities that call themselves churches.

          And I’ve met enough decent theistss in meat space who take their role very seriously when it comes to making the world a better place.

          Some of them form churches. Some of them do the best they can in corrupt churches.

          I always wish they could just discard the supernatural bits and do what they do (the good ones).

          There are enough organizations out there that do good work (without the supernatural stuff). Their work would contribute greatly.

          But humans are complicated. Sometimes, the social work in your town is done by churches.

          And you were raised in a church. And all you know is how to do it in a church way. And sometimes, the most effective way you can do it is that way.

          But that’s culture.

          It has nothing to do with the supernatural claims.

          It can be done by humans without them.

        • MR

          And let’s not forget, it’s always done by humans.

        • Ignorant Amos

          Oh I don’t doubt that there are plenty of good Christians doing great things. But all religious institution’s main goal is about preserving and propagating the virus. Even if that is just for the benefit of the folk temporarily in charge. If there is a minor outlay in order to achieve that goal, no problem.

        • Carol Lynn

          In this context, I’d call a church ‘good’ if it met the Charity Navigator criteria for a 3 or 4 star rating. It’s got zilch to do with doctrine.

        • Doubting Thomas

          Just going by percentage of income spent on charitable causes, no church I know of would get close to being a three or four star on charity navigator. Hell, most wouldn’t even be two star. After a quick look the lowest three star still allocated 77% of donations to charity. I’m pretty sure that most churches are in the single digits and the best, the Methodist, tops out at 30%.

          Churches suck at charity.

        • Carol Lynn

          My point exactly. “Charity” for churches is supporting *themselves* and their infrastructure for their own use not ‘people who need help’. Considering that most churches won’t even help people who are not one of them or at least willing to hear a sermon, the suckage is immense. IMO, churches should not count as ‘non-profit’ at all and don’t get me started on the ‘parsonage’ exemptions. Only the actual ‘charitable’ monies distributed should be eligible for the tax exemption and the rest of their income needs to be taxed properly. Possibly they could qualify as a 501(c)7 – Social and Recreational Clubs – or a 501(c)10 – Domestic Fraternal Societies and Associations – but then donations *to* them would not be tax deductible and they would, of course, be subject to reporting requirements.

        • Carol Lynn

          Someone once whined to me when I talked about this that their little church could barely make ends meet as it is. With supporting their building and the staff salaries, they didn’t have anything left over to do a lot of traditional charity. They think they need to be to be a non-profit so they can count what they give to themselves as charitable spending and get to pat themselves on the back for being so much more charitable than anyone else… Er… really? No other group gets the same benefits without having to *at a minimum* account for their spending to the IRS.

        • I’ve long thought that country clubs are much more like what churches are, not good-works organizations. Country clubs probably give a little to charity. They sometimes have the odd fund raiser. It wouldn’t take much to beat the average church, methinks.

        • Ignorant Amos

          My football supporters club probably gives more to charity than most of the local churches, and there are quite a few churches in the town.

        • Ignorant Amos

          Coincidentally I was just reading about this last night.

          Church economics, or the 5% solution

          The God Virus, Dr. Darrel W. Ray, pp.77-81.

          An article in the summer 2000 “Church Leadership Journal” discussed how churches should budget. Here are its recommendations.

          Church Budgets

          • Staff compensation – 40-60% (60-65% must be strongly communicated as “Staff to Grow”)

          • Facilities – 20%

          • Debt retirement – 8%

          • Utilities – 5%

          • Maintenance – 5%

          • Insurance – 6%

          • Missions – 16% (50/50 between foreign & domestic)

          • Programs – 10% (no salaries here)

          • Administration – 6%

          • Denominational fees – 5%

          The numbers add up to more than 121% — these are their figures, not mine. A quick look at this budget recommendation show a lot of money going to things that do not help anyone.

          Of the money given to a religious organization, something less (probably far less) than 5% provides something of functional value. Most money is directed to the propagation of the religion. How does that compare to a non-religious charitable organization? The Better Bureau Wise Giving Alliance recommends that charitable organizations spend 65% of their budgets on program activities and 35% on fundraising and administration. In general, a dollar given to a religious organization will result in 5 cents going to some functional activity. A dollar given to the Red Cross, United Way, Habitat for Humanity, or many other non-religious organizations will result in a 65 cent functional benefit if they follow the Better Business Bureau guidelines. By comparison, church giving is a 95% investment in the virus and 5% in people.

          The book goes into more detail…but you all get the picture.

          Edit for some spelling issues.

        • Helpful. That they can’t add suggests that they’ve got other financial problems as well.

          It could be that even the “good” churches (those without lavish salaries or business jets) might be embarrassed at the small % of their income going to good works.

        • Ignorant Amos

          Embarrassed?

          Ya couldn’t cut them with a knife.

          Didn’t I read a book about just such a church? It was a work of fiction, but the message was real enough.

          My partner was just telling me a story about the wee girl that does her nails. Her father was a bastard who repeatedly cheated on her mother. Her mother cracked one day and fucked him out when her and her sister were 4 and 5 years old. He broke off all contact with the wee’ns and they heard nothing from him for years. Out of the blue on her 18th birthday she got a birthday greeting from her da on Facebook. It turns out he has a terminal illness and has no one to look after him. People are users.

          Even non-believing altruists get a reward of sorts.

          At the end of the day, religion is about self propagation. The pyramid scheme benefits those at the top unfairly.

          Take one of the most recent examples, L. Ron Hubbard and Scientology.

          LRH reasoned that if he could turn Dianetics into a religion, the U.S. government couldn’t take away any income from him in the form of taxes. Surely he’d soon be swimming in it. He grokked the American zeitgeist well enough to bet that a seeker of spiritual relief could be transformed into a steadfast consumer who would empty her pockets for the promise of conquering the anxiety of being human in an uncertain and often hostile world.

          https://www.salon.com/2015/04/02/religion_is_a_pyramid_scheme_scientology_and_the_lasting_lesson_of_going_clear_partner/

          To quote the great George Carlin, “God loves you. And he needs money!”

        • Wouldn’t Christians love to see Scientology’s books? That’s another reason for open books.

        • HairyEyedWordBombThrower

          Try ‘churches not committing financial fraud’.

          Do you have some *other* definition of ‘good’ in the context of financial transparency?

        • I’m curious, too. But who knows, since we can’t see their books?

      • Ignorant Amos

        Confused?

        Bwaaaahahahaha…it takes something to be working between the ears, before the ability to get confused may be attained.

  • Susan

    Excellent article. Really, really good work.

    • Thanks! This is my longest single post. Whew!

      I emailed some of the Christian bloggers at Patheos and didn’t get much of a response. I gave them a week’s notice with access to the post so they could post their rebuttals (or whatever) today. So far, crickets.

      It would be good to get a thoughtful rebuttal (or agreement or something).

      My hope was that, with the pro-Christian slant, this would appeal to everyone. Pass it on to anyone you think could give the issue some attention.

      • Lark62

        Did you try Daffern at New Wineskins? He is always oh so sincere about wanting to improve his church and attract new people. Of course, he wants to do this without changing any of the things that are driving people away.

        • Thanks for the tip. I just contacted him.

        • tm17

          You should see if you can get a reply from the folks at https://www.churchlawandtax.com. I subscribe to a “Richard Hammers Essentials” newsletter about church finances and tax law. It’s sent out from the folks running this website. They seem to have plenty to say regarding tax law.

          One thing you didn’t mention in your article is that many denominations already have lots of taxable income. So, they are already filing tax returns for the secular portions of their income.

          When a church purchases a building (for investment purposes) then rents out the building to a non-religious entity, that is taxable income. The Mormons, Catholics, and Scientologists are supposed to be some of the largest landowners in the US. All of their property can’t be used exclusively for religious purposes, so there has to be a lot of taxable income from these denominations.

          Also, in your bibliography, I didn’t see mention of the book “God’s Bankers”. It is an expose about the Vatican Bank and the many scandals coming out of it. Outright fraud. Murders. Money laundering. You’d almost think that the Vatican was run by the mafia!!

        • Thanks for the tip. I contacted them and gave them a link.

          As for churches’ existing taxable income, I read something just today about some church using the excuse that filing out the 990 is such a hassle, but of course a big church will almost surely have some taxable income, so they’ve already crossed that bridge.

          The article was quite long as it was. You mention some interesting tangents (thanks), but I wanted to keep it as focused as possible.

          One post I’m mulling is: imagine a world in which there was no Christian church and then it just appeared. That is, instead of being a venerable and respected institution that’s grandfathered in as modern constitutions were written, you first have the constitutions and then, 5 years ago let’s say, churches become a thing.

          This thought experiment lets us imagine how we’d evaluate them honestly rather than carve out special domains of (perhaps undeserved) respect as we do now.

        • Ignorant Amos

          Like multi-million dollar evangelical churches appearing out of whole-cloth. Never happened.

          A mind virus that the human species is prepossessed to uptake. Like the cold.

    • DoorknobHead

      Thanx, Susan. I saw your endorsement of the article, and since I “stalk” your comments (and enjoying your comments very much — thanx for that too) I couldn’t read the article fast enough. Thanx again, I thought it was really, really good too.

      • Susan

        Thanx, Susan.

        Thanx, yourself.

        since I “stalk” your comments

        It wouldn’t occur to me that anyone would bother to follow my comments, even though I follow the comments of others.

        A Disqus feature that’s led me to conversations I wouldn’t have known about otherwise.

        I couldn’t read the article fast enough. Thanx again, I thought it was really, really good too.

        I’m glad whatever Disqus features were involved that led you to read this article, that you read it.

        Much as I often loathe Disqus, it made that happen.

  • ildi

    This would seem to become a no-brainer necessary requirement if religious organizations are allowed to use government funds, as the Supreme Court seems to be leaning: https://thehill.com/regulation/court-battles/432456-supreme-court-refuses-to-hear-church-request-for-historic

    The Supreme Court has refused to hear a dispute over whether a local government in New Jersey can award publicly-funded historic preservation grants to active churches and other religious institutions.

    Government officials in Morris County, N.J., and 12 churches had urged the justices to review the New Jersey Supreme Court ruling siding with the Freedom From Religion Foundation, a secularist group that along with a local taxpayer had challenged the $4.6 million that had been awarded to the churches.

    The lower court said state law prohibits taxpayer funds from being used to repair churches.

    The officials and churches, however, argued that excluding religious buildings from the county’s historic preservation program unconstitutionally discriminates against religion.

    Kavanaugh said it was only recently that the court ruled in a case known as Trinity Lutheran that a Missouri law unconstitutionally barred a religious school from obtaining state grant funding to resurface its playground

  • Grimlock

    Very interesting! Not to mention well written.

    We have a different system in Norway. Here, every religious or worldview community (including humanist organizations) that fit some crtieria get money from the state per member each year. Around $120 per member. (Fun fact: The Catholic Church cheated with their member list.) But I don’t actually know how much insight the average person can get into their economy. Will have to look into that…

    • You’ve probably heard about the Icelandic protest against their similar system. Some new church organized and said that their doctrine was to give their income back to their members. Citizens had to pick some church, so if they’re not churchy, this one will at least return their obligatory donation.

  • Yes, the double standard here should end, definitely agreed.

  • Thomas Rhodes

    Bob, this is an excellent article. I have been a pastor for over 25 years (much of that as a Senior Pastor) and what quickly came to my mind sounded trite, but it was, “AMEN!” The abuse, the lack of transparency, the lack of accountability, and just the sheer irresponsibility of most churches when it comes to finances is extremely ubiquitous. I could share many stories, but in an effort to be concise, I agree wholeheartedly that all churches at the local level should be required to file a 990 form with the IRS. The amount of abuse that is seen in public scandal, doesn’t even begin to identify the true abuse that most churches practice. If there is any organization or organism that should be transparent in finances, it is the local church. And I don’t want to hear, “What about the separation of church & state.” By implementing a required 990, the state is NOT dictating to the church what to believe or what “by-laws” they should operate by. The exemption from paying taxes, should at the very least come with public transparency. Then people can decide by their participation, or not; by seeing truth in black and white. I applaud your effort, your reasoning, and fully support churches filling out a yearly 990 for everyone to see. Maybe, the scandals would lesson, and truth in accountability would win the day!

    • And I’ll return that Amen! It’s great to hear that someone from the inside can so quickly agree to the point. We’re on the same page, but now our challenge is to make the change.

      The gatekeepers–the Christian newsletters, news outlets, blogs, etc.–don’t seem to be motivated to write about the issue. I’m still sending out emails to any that come to mind. You’d think that they’d be eager to make clear how important the exemption is to keep. That would be fine with me–anything to raise the profile of the issue. So far, nothing.

      Let me know if you have any insights into how to spread the word.

  • Chris

    I know if I was a US taxpayer, I’d be well pissed off to be paying for all these god bothering charlatans.

    Why shouldn’t churches be treated the same as other parts of the leisure and entertainment industry?… Let those who get their jollies from church services pay admission (or the gigs be sponsored) in the same way as those who prefer attending concerts, night clubs, theatres, cinemas, strip clubs etc. … Then pay taxes like all those other entertainment businesses do.

    Why should those who aren’t churchgoers finance the entertainment and leisure pursuits of those who do?… After all, they’d soon complain if they were asked to pay towards rock gigs and pole dancing clubs (and maybe the legal brothels in Nevada).

    • Making churches pay their own way instead of being subsidized is issue #2. This post is focused on issue #1, which is simply making public the basics of their financial records.

      When the dust has settled on that, we can move on to issue 2.

  • Shaun G. Lynch

    I would add a Pro #12: in Canada, ALL registered charities – religious organizations included – authorized to issue official donation receipts for tax purposes are required to annually file. T3010, the Canada Revenue Agency’s équivalent to the IRS 990 form. It’s an administrative hassle, but given that tax deductions for charitable contributions constitute a public expense, it’s entirely appropriate to require all charities to publicly disclose their financial details. There’s nothing remotely unfair about it, and even the religious charities recognize that it’s in the public interest.

  • Flint8ball

    I think churches should be treated as a social club/charity like the Lions, Elks, Moose etc. I’m not sure what those requirements are, but churches deserve no preferential treatment.

    • Greg G.

      Church tithes are a seat license for weekly gospel singing, religious pep talk, and social gathering.

  • Connie Beane

    First, I would venture to guess that the percentage of fraud is way higher than 15%. Secondly, I suspect that, in smaller churches especially, the instance of fraud perpetrated by the staff (pastor, church secretary, treasurer, etc.) against the congregation is an even greater problem. Most of the time, the individual is quietly relieved of their duties with no one the wiser, and no prosecution to avoid embarrassment to the church and the felon. Sometimes, the perpetrator “repents” and is forgiven and reinstated in their position, with the same access to the checkbook as before!

  • prinefan

    None are innocent. All are enablers. Religion, all of it, that’s the problem.

  • Vincent Owen Gonzalez

    Granted, there are unscrupulous pastor’s/ministers, and they give honest ministers and churches a very bad name. All of the churches I served as a minister and now serve as a deacon were/are completely transparent in financial dealings. Problems arise when people, male or female, start their own churches and are “owners” of the church, it’s buildings, properties etc and have sole control over the church’s finances. The temptations of greed, power, control, the adulation of the congregants opens up the doors to corruption through and through. This is so incredibly wrong. The promise of “miracles” and “healings” and use of such tools as the ” miracle spring water” damage churches and ministers who are completely above board. The church’s I served published a financial statement monthly. Salaries and budgets had to be approved by the entire church. It’s sad that a few corrupt individuals damage greatly the Christian faith. I am not trying to provoke a debate over whether or not God exists etc for me personally it’s a matter of faith and I understand that that theee are many who would debate the issue. I think we can find common ground demanding accountability and transparency out of all non-profit organizations religious or not. I have no problem with churches paying property taxes etc I think too many organizations take unfair advantage of the laws, rules etc which may give them unfair advantages over the businesses around them.
    Rev. Vincent O. Gonzalez, Sr.

    • Doubting Thomas

      I think if churches were required to pay property tax then we would see them closing at an unprecedented rate. Many old churches have prime locations and dwindling congregations. That makes for a low income/high expense balance sheet. Businesses like that don’t stay around too long.

      Not that that would bother me….

    • Ignorant Amos

      But that’s what religions are about. The wise taking advantage of the stupid.

      Religion supports nobody. It has to be supported. It produces no wheat. no corn; it is a perpetual mendicant. It lives and labors of others, and then has the arrogance to pretend that it supports the giver. Robert Ingersoll

    • Ignorant Amos

      What did Seneca say?

      “Religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by rulers as useful.”

      • skenl

        Voted up because I agree with Seneca on 2/3 of his points. I have known too many wise AND religious people to give this one a full pass. I’ve known many “common” people who disdain religion, too.

        • Ignorant Amos

          Wise religious people use a thing called compartmentalization. They might be among the wisest people on the planet, but when it comes to religion, they are just as stupid as the wise and religious people of competing religions.

          Common people nowadays are better positioned to understand religions better. It’s not like the gud auld days when the religions could censor what the common people got to hear.

          Plenty of well informed common people show disdain for religions, that’s because they can see the nonsense for what it all is, and the damage it has, is, and will continue to do if it isn’t curtailed.

    • Thanks for the input.

      If you go to the databases of all 990 forms (Charity Navigator is one), you’ll see how inadequate “but our church provides financials” is. With Charity Navigator, you have one-stop shopping to all 1.5 million nonprofits.

      If all churches opened their books (they don’t) and provided as much detail as a 990 (they don’t), you’d still have to spend an hour understanding the particular way that each church’s data is presented. A single database is mandatory.

      I agree with you that what churches’ tax-exempt status should be revisited, but let’s get the books open first.

      Let me know if you have any ideas for moving forward and getting lay Christians on board.

    • Ignorant Amos

      Granted, there are unscrupulous pastor’s/ministers, and they give honest ministers and churches a very bad name.

      Hmmmm! I believe a lot of ministers and churches believe they are being honest, so yeah, not unscrupulous, but we are talking overt transparency and there doesn’t seem to be a lot of it about. Why?

      All of the churches I served as a minister and now serve as a deacon were/are completely transparent in financial dealings.

      Are they 990 filed? How can we even check? Not that I doubt your sincerity, anyone brave enough to “come out” and then serve as a cleric in a Christian church, even one as liberal as the Presbyterian in the U.S.A., certainly has earned it. But as an outsider looking in, how would one go about checking?

      The Presbyterians don’t 990 file as far as I can see. The Metropolitan Community Church, of which I believe you were once a member, are not 990 filed. The St. John the Apostle MCC, Ft. Meyer, FL are not on Charity Navigator as a 501(c)3 registered charity as far as I can see.

      May I ask why did ya left the MCC? They seem to be a progressive liberal bunch too.

      Problems arise when people, male or female, start their own churches and are “owners” of the church, it’s buildings, properties etc and have sole control over the church’s finances.

      Indeed. We know that is one reason. But I don’t think we here are going to be naive enough to accept that it doesn’t happen within the larger more organized institutional churches. The RCC has a long dark history of corruption which was instrumental in the Reformation. They are still at it at every level I suspect.

      https://www.nytimes.com/2018/03/03/world/europe/vatican-bank-embezzlement-indictment.html

      https://www.forbes.com/sites/walterpavlo/2013/11/18/fraud-thriving-in-u-s-churches-but-you-wouldnt-know-it/#bc6bf04d9d43

      The temptations of greed, power, control, the adulation of the congregants opens up the doors to corruption through and through.

      That’s the problem…and it’s not exclusive to religious institutions of all flavour, but with more transparency, folk could look into it all and challenge any thing seen as peculiar. That’s the drive behind the OP.

      This is so incredibly wrong. The promise of “miracles” and “healings” and use of such tools as the ” miracle spring water” damage churches and ministers who are completely above board.

      But what approaches are all those being besmirched by the “rotten apples” and how can we know who is who?

      The church’s I served published a financial statement monthly. Salaries and budgets had to be approved by the entire church.

      Yeah…colour me not impressed. Fiddling the books can be an art form. We only ever here about those that get caught. Meanwhile the poor have to watch the clergy lording it.

      https://edition.cnn.com/interactive/2014/08/us/american-archbishops-lavish-homes/index.html

      It’s sad that a few corrupt individuals damage greatly the Christian faith.

      It is sad, but what’s sadder is those that sit quietly by and do nothing, or sadder still, those that try and cover it up. There are bad eggs in all walks of life, but when the powers that be try to hide the problem, that takes it to another level. This is why the cover-up of clerical abuse compounds the problem.

      I am not trying to provoke a debate over whether or not God exists etc for me personally it’s a matter of faith and I understand that that theee are many who would debate the issue.

      Yeah, there are lots of other articles on Bob’s blog where that stuff is debated at length. But what I would say is this, it seems strange to me why such an entity would permit such antics to go on…especially among the ordained…when there was a time that doing the most inoffensive and mundane “crime” got the wrath of the same God, apparently.

      I think we can find common ground demanding accountability and transparency out of all non-profit organizations religious or not. I have no problem with churches paying property taxes etc I think too many organizations take unfair advantage of the laws, rules etc which may give them unfair advantages over the businesses around them.

      And for that mutual sentiment, I think we can all doff our caps to you sir.

      Given your position, orientation, and marital status, I’d be highly intrigued on your view of the ignorance on display at the link below…

      https://www.patheos.com/blogs/crossexamined/2018/12/turning-the-tables-on-same-sex-marriage-not-with-this-argument-2-of-2-2/

    • David Cromie

      No matter which way one looks at it, religion is one big rip-off, no matter how ‘sincere’ an individual pastor may be. Sincerity is no guarantee of rectitude.

      Transparent financial records would be one way to sort out the obvious fiddles, fraud, and false claims.

      • Ignorant Amos

        The thing about religious clerics is that they can all be just as deceitful as the next guy. I’d say even more so given their line of work.

        Bart Ehrman, in one of his books, claims that the reason so many drop out of seminary early on in training, is because a lot of the stuff they thought and understood was true, they then discover it is false, and it is too much to handle, so they bail out.

        While those members of the Clergy Project have genuine reasons for not coming out as non-believers, nevertheless, they are acting deceitful by not stepping aside immediately.

  • Robert Conner

    While I applaud the impulse toward full disclosure, I have to laugh. This is like asking that evangelical icon, Donald John Trump, to release his tax returns or all the billionaires to open their Cayman Island accounts for inspection by the common taxpaying rabble. If listening to the Tales from the Catholic Crypt has taught us anything, it’s that churches live above the law. Accountability’s not the Christian “thing.” I could launch into a list of other Christian practices that are patently fraudulent such as “conversion therapy” for LGBT people, some of whom still willingly allow themselves to be victimized by churches. On a broader scale, I could argue that religion is basically a swindle by definition, so why strain at the gnat of financial fraud?

    • eric

      I agree there will be broad resistance. But there’s some good apples out there. My parents’ ELCA church has always kept their charity activities as a separate charitable organization on paper and followed standard non-profit disclosure requirements…and they probably aren’t really exceptional in that amongst the churches they collaborate with. Offhand, I’d say Bob’s Pro#7 and Pro#10 are probably their main motivations for acting this way: the benefits to the church management of keeping “good” books, to them, doesn’t require any other justification.

      Of course, I think some of that has to do with the make up of the congregation; when you have white collar accountants and businesspeople volunteering to be church treasurer, etc., then they tend to naturally want and expect to do things in a white collar, business-type manner. They don’t need a push or incentive to act that way: that’s just the way they normally act.

      • Ignorant Amos

        The point is….your hard earned dollar is better invested in non-religious activity if charity is the aim, because otherwise, the investment isn’t fully realized in a religious donation.

        Your example of your parents is a prime example…they had to keep there good deeds and charitable work outside the remit of the religious establishment, if I understand correctly. No matter, it’s always about the god virus at base.

        Whether you think they are exceptional or not, isn’t really the issue…no details mean we really can’t appreciate. Though excuses have been made…and most of those that donates, haven’t a fucking clue.

        It’s the big players we are talking about here, and they are rip-off bastards.

        • eric

          They didn’t have to, they wanted to. Out of conscientiousness, they wanted people’s donations marked to ‘the church’ to go to the church and donations to their ’causes’ to go to those causes, without any mistakes that can come from sloppy bookkeeping.

          No matter, it’s always about the god virus at base.

          And so? I don’t care if they’re doing good works out of a desire to please God; if they’re doing good work, I support that.
          It seems utterly foolish to me to treat religious people who not only espouse but actually put significant resources towards good causes as excuse-making bastards. They’re our allies. Yes sure, there are also many many religious groups who are our social, political opponents. Who defraud their congregations by spending money on themselves or (even worse) support retrograde, regressive social policies with that money. And we should fight against them…together with our religious allies. This not-virtuous-enough, eating-ourselves behavior in progressive politics has got to stop.

  • JustAnotherAtheist2

    Terrific piece, Bob.

  • Ronnie Smith

    All churches should be fully taxed . Now excuse for giving them a free card out of jail. That is as silly as Jesse jackson
    owing irs over 35 million for some say over 30 years and not one penny from what i last heard was ever collected or nor was any attempt made to collect it from because he is black and that is a no no as the feds are scared with their heads up politically correct’s ass.

    • Ignorant Amos

      That is as silly as Jesse jackson owing irs over 35 million for some say over 30 years and not one penny from what i last heard was ever collected or nor was any attempt made to collect it from because he is black and that is a no no as the feds are scared with their heads up politically correct’s ass.

      $35 million? That is silly. Source please?

      Sorry, a can’t let that fly.

      It’s not even nearly accurate.

      The colour of ones skin has fuck all to do with it when it comes to tax evasion and the IRS. Ask Wesley Snipes.

      Jackson is by no means squeaky clean, but let’s not kick the arse out of it.

      The former Representative (D–IL) pled guilty on Feb. 20, 2013 for fraudulently obtaining $750,000 of funds from his election campaign, and his wife, Sandra Jackson, pled guilty to one count of tax fraud for covering up the receipt of those funds from 2006 to 2011. Jesse was sentenced to 30 months in prison, while his wife was sentenced to one year.

      https://eu.usatoday.com/story/money/business/2014/02/28/famous-tax-cheats/5903143/

  • Ronnie Smith

    To began with anyone who forces a child to go to church should be labeled a pedifile or worse. The evidence is there. religion is a charade and hopefully dieing and dam good riddence.

    • Richard Dawkins says that childhood indoctrination is child abuse.

      • skenl

        So? The man has an impressive CV, for sure. But every lecture of his I’ve heard in which he speaks against religion has an abundance of logical fallacies and historical errors (or relevant facts he chooses not to include). Any Christian with a solid background in history should be able to see right through his arguments. So no, what Dawkins says in regard to religion and child rearing is not anything I have great respect for.

        • Whether childhood indoctrination is child abuse or not isn’t an interest of mine. But if you want to outline an error Dawkins makes (ideally with links to show the problem), that might be interesting to talk about.

        • Gary Whittenberger

          Suppose most parents in the world were teaching their children that aliens from another galaxy had landed on the Earth, were making themselves look like humans, and were interacting with humans, all with the goal of eventually taking over the Earth from humans. Would you think that was child abuse?

        • Ignorant Amos

          And yet the best Christians he’s come up against from the other side, don’t seem to manage to “see right through his arguments”, nor manage anything like a convincing rebuttal. And it gets worse when the best the Christian side has to offer comes up against better tooled up non-believers than Richard Dawkins.

          If you have a particular argument in mind, am sure there will be plenty here willing to peruse the details with ya?

        • Ignorant Amos

          When children are taught that they will burn in Hell for eternity for the most mundane of “crimes” and they are scared shitless by it, that is mental abuse.

          Even if gullible parents really believe Hell to be a fact.

    • Ignorant Amos

      Religious education is mandatory in UK schools.

      Also, weekly assembly with hymn singing and prayer is a thing in most primary schools.

  • rationalobservations?

    The tax exempt businesses of religion are the most profitable organisations in history.
    The original “Jesus” cult religion founded in 4th century Rome and with headquarters in the medieval Vatican City-State make upward of $90,000,000,000 each year and pay zero tax on that income fraudulently extracted from the ignorant, the gullible and those who rent any of its vast real estate portfolio. Studious examination of charities with the word “Catholic” in their titles reveals that the cash flow is all one way with not one cent ever being paid out for anything other than staff wages and other corporate overheads while the obscene hoarded wealth of the RCC piles ever higher and with new profitable investments ever more difficult to find – the annual surplus wealth of the Vatican has been converted into gold bullion that now rivals Fort Knox in value.

    The numbers of folk who remain indoctrinated into enslavement to any of the fraudulent protection racket scams of religion declines ever more rapidly across and within the educated, free, predominantly secular developed western world – and among millennials, beyond and into those lands still blighted by totalitarian regimes of autocratic and theocratic non-christian religions.

    Fewer than 18% of Americans and fewer than 6% of Europeans remain active members of any “Jesus” based cult or sect and the villages, towns and cities of the western world are littered with ever more empty, rotting (or redeveloped) redundant churches.

    When will democracy and the dishonest politicians catch up with the democratic will of the non-religious citizens who now form the majority of western nations regarding removal of subsidies and preferential treatment from any and all fraudulent and self serving religions and religionists?

    • You must be confused. The Christian church is devoted to helping the poor.

      • rationalobservations?

        “The Christian church is devoted to helping the poor.”
        When?
        Where?
        How?

        The christian “church” has a 1600 year history (from the its foundation in 4th century Rome) of fleecing and enslaving the gullible the ignorant and the poor.

      • Ignorant Amos

        There ya go again, leaving off the “//s” and goading us all into believing you meant it.

  • NS Alito

    Informed, factual and reasonable. There must be some way to pass this off as satanic.

  • Greg G.

    Did you hear about the nun who gave up chastity for Lent?

  • TheNuszAbides

    As St George Carlin said of churches: “Tax those motherfuckers!”

  • Gary Whittenberger

    Bob, this is an excellent article. I hope you will send copies to your congressional reps.

    • Thanks. I have indeed. I’ve been trying to drum up interest but haven’t found much so far. Friendly Atheist was good enough to give a link, and John Loftus. It was in the Best of Patheos.

      Maybe a press release to reach out to more media organizations? I’m guessing many don’t even know of the issue. Let me know if you have other ideas.