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Can the Government Really Do a Better Job? Why Religious Institutions Should be Tax-Exempt

Can the Government Really Do a Better Job? Why Religious Institutions Should be Tax-Exempt

October 17, 2017

By: James Gottry


Over the weekend, Time posted an opinion editorial by Mark Oppenheimer, the New York Times’ religion writer that leaves no doubt as to the author’s position: “Now’s the Time To End Tax Exemptions for Religious Institutions.”  Oppenheimer admits that such a move would cause charitable giving to nosedive, but he apparently isn’t worried because “that [increased tax revenue] could be used [by the government to]…house the homeless and feed the hungry.”


In other words, “give it to the government, they’ll do it better.”

First, Oppenheimer completely ignores the most compelling reason for offering tax exemptions to religious institutions: there is no surer way to destroy the free exercise of religion than to tax it.  This is hardly a controversial principle.  The Supreme Court recognized this truth in McCulloch v. Maryland: “the power to tax involves the power to destroy,” and the executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State has conceded this point as well.

But even ignoring the fact that Oppenheimer’s proposal could place in doubt the very future of religious institutions, let’s consider his other assumption, that burdening religious institutions isn’t a big deal, because the government can just pick up the slack.

The problem is, the federal government doesn’t have a great track record with social services, either in terms of fiscal responsibility or general effectiveness.  In 2011, Government Accountability Office released a report on duplicative and fractured Federal spending, estimating that “conservatively, $100 billion could be saved each year….” As to duplication, Heritage notes that, among other things, the federal government has 342 economic development programs; 130 programs serving the disabled; 130 programs serving at-risk youth; 90 early childhood development programs; 75 programs funding international education, cultural, and training exchange activities; and 72 safe water programs.

The wasteful spending would be easier to accept if the programs were successful, but the GAO found, for example, that only 7 of 18 federal food assistance programs had been associated with “positive health and nutrition outcomes.”  Representative Jim Jordan, then-chairman of the Subcommittee on Regulatory Affairs, Stimulus Oversight and Government Spending, concluded that “American taxpayers deserve better than our current system provides.”

In contrast to the services provided by layers of government bureaucracy funded by mandatory taxes, nonprofit entities typically must produce results if they are to continue receiving funding from discriminating donors.  And, as it turns out, many of the most successful nonprofits were founded on religious principles, and by religious organizations or individuals.  In fact, at least 12 of the top 20 largest charities in the U.S., as identified by Forbes, fit this description.  Below is a quick summary of these organizations:

  1. United Way: Founded in 1887 by “a Denver woman, a priest, two ministers, and a rabbi,” with a commitment to make Denver, Colo., a better place to live.  In 2013, government support constituted only 6.3% of its total revenue.
  2. Salvation Army: Salvation Army was formed in 1852 as “an evangelical part of the universal Christian Church,” and its “ministry is motivated by the love of God.” In 2013, government support constituted only 8% of its total revenue.
  3. Food for the Poor: Founded in 1982, and “motivated by our faith in God,” Food for the Poor provides food, housing, healthcare and other services. In 2013, government support constituted only .6% of its total revenue.
  4. Goodwill:  Founded in 1902 by a Methodist minister, with the vision to eradicate “poverty and exploitation” through the “prayerful cooperation” of contributors and workers.  In 2013, government support constituted only 9% of its total revenue.
  5. YMCA:  The Young Men’s Christian Association was founded in 1844 by George Williams, who wanted to create “a refuge of Bible study and prayer for young men seeking escape from the hazards of life on the streets.”  In 2013, government support constituted only 9% of its total revenue.
  6. World Vision: Founded in 1950, World Vision is a Christian humanitarian organization dedicated to working with children, families, and their communities worldwide. In 2013, government support constituted 18% of its total revenue.
  7. Boys & Girls Clubs of America: Founded in 1860 to provide a positive alternative for boys who otherwise “roamed the streets,” the club code began, “I believe in God and the right to worship according to my own faith and religion.”  In 2013, government support constituted 29% of its total revenue.
  8. Catholic Charities USA: Founded in 1910, it exists to “provide service to people in need, to advocate for justice in social structures, and to call the entire church and other people of good will to do the same.”  In 2013, government support constituted 65% of its total revenue.
  9. Compassion International:  Founded by American evangelist Rev. Everett Swanson in 1952, its programs “are rooted in our Christian faith and are implemented by the local church.” In 2013, Compassion International received no government support.
  10. Habitat for Humanity: Founded in 1976, its mission is to “put God’s love into action by bringing people together to build homes, communities and hope.” In 2013, government support constituted 13.5% of its total revenue.
  11. Catholic Medical Mission Board: Founded in 1912, and “[i]nspired by the example of Jesus, Catholic Medical Mission Board works in partnership globally to deliver locally sustainable, quality health solutions to women, children, and their communities.”  In 2013, government support constituted less than 3% of its total revenue.
  12. Campus Crusade for Christ: Founded in 1951, it is a “caring community passionate about connecting people to Jesus Christ.” In 2013, Campus Crusade for Christ received no government support.


Oppenheimer believes these organizations—and every other religious nonprofit—can be replaced by the federal government.  While such a proposition once would have been as unlikely as it is ludicrous, the government has increasingly demonstrated a willingness to restrict the religious freedom of both individuals and organizations.  Just months ago, the US Solicitor General admitted to the Supreme Court that even tax exemptions for religious schools may be in danger, if those schools hold to the traditional view of marriage.

When it comes to serving the community and enriching society, the federal government is relatively new to the arena.  Religious organizations are working off a charter laid down 2,000 years ago.

So my message to Oppenheimer is this: leave it to the experts.

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