The Black Hole of Church Finances

    By Karen L. Garst | 2 August 2016
    Faithless Feminist

    St. Louis Cathedral from Moonwalk, French Quarter, New Orleans, Louisiana. (Photo: Darren Copley / Flickr)

    In my last year of college, Paris beckoned. A French major, I had secured a six-month expense paid education at the Sorbonne. Living in the Latin Quarter, I often crossed the bridge to the Ile de la Cite to walk through the corridors of Notre Dame. On a sunny day, beams of bright light streamed through the magnificent Rose window. I remember taking my mother up to the top of the edifice when she came to visit—slightly over 365 steps. Being close to the gargoyles made me think of the craftsmanship that went into the construction of this cathedral that took almost two centuries to complete. While the construction certainly provided thousands of jobs over that time 3/4 to artists, architects, contractors, and others 3/4 think of how that much money could have been spent to better the lives of the people. Visualize where ordinary people lived in the Middle Ages in Paris. When Rome fell so did its concepts of basic sanitation, sewage system, and baths. Disease was rampant and people lived in hovels. But the Catholic Church sought to invest the hard-earned money of its parishioners to build Notre Dame. Imagine if that money had been invested in discovering the cause of the plague, building sanitation systems, and housing people in adequate and clean dwellings. Construction of these systems would have employed just as many people, but given them something that would make their lives better. Of course I am sure that Bishop Maurice Sully saw building Notre Dame as providing for their “spiritual life.” I am sure he never considered his own glorification in starting such an enterprise… Yes, the cathedral is beautiful and it endures today as a magnificent example of Gothic architecture. But I would easily trade it for a better life for the people who lived in the Middle Ages.

    Times haven’t changed much in the last 700 years. Sikivu Hutchinson describes Pastor Bishop Charles Blake’s mega-church on Crenshaw Boulevard in South Los Angeles as a “gilded white elephant.”[1] It sits in one of the poorest areas of LA characterized by “deserted businesses, for lease signs, fast food joints, check cashing places, strip malls, and comfy bus benches for homeless street dwellers.” The church cost $60 million to build. Magic Johnson and Denzel Washington each donated $5 million, but the rest came from donations of ten and twenty dollars from poor parishioners. Blake must have been a persuasive preacher to get people to cough up their hard earned dollars to build such a monstrosity intoning that it is what “God deserves.” Sikivu points out what that $60 million could have done if it had been spent on helping the people in the neighborhood including “affordable housing for hundreds.”

    While Blake’s church is the third-largest in LA, it is dwarfed by Joel Osteen’s Lakewood Church in Houston, Texas. Housed in a former sports arena, the Compaq Center, it seats 16,800. The church was required to pay $11.8 million for 30 years in rent in advance and it spent $75 million renovated the building.[2] Unfortunately, there are more than a 1,000 megachurches in the US. I wonder if the pastors ever quote Jesus’ words from Matthew 19:21 in their sermons. “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”

    Building magnificent edifices while fleecing the congregations is not the only element about church finances that is disturbing. In the United States, churches qualify as tax-exempt organizations. Until a research report published in 2012, the impact of that status had not been carefully examined. Lead author Ryan Cragun (PhD and Associate Professor of Sociology) and his team did a thorough examination of how much local, state, and federal governments subsidize religion. Their conclusion? $71 billion a year. This consists of the exemption from taxes on the operations of the organization, exemption from local or state property taxes, and exemptions for the pastors for income taxes. (Employees of churches are required to pay income taxes.) One of the rationales for this exemption is the supposed provision of charity by religious institutions. But even the Church of the Latter-Day Saints’ charitable contributions of $1 billion dollars between 1985 and 2008 consisted of only about 0.7 percent of its annual income. America’s Most Cost Effective Charities lists over 50 charities that spend less than five percent of their revenue on operating expenses. This is just about the polar opposite of the Mormon Church.

    If churches were not tax-exempt, what else could be purchased with the $71 billion? Let’s take a look. $73.9 billion was spent on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program for total benefits and associated costs in 2015. SNAP is the name for the food stamp program. Isn’t it interesting that conservative politicians often rail against the spending on the SNAP program but never comment on the money spent on religious organizations that could virtually fully fund this program? The 2013-2014 budget for federal monies for Planned Parenthood was a measly $528 million. Imagine how we could improve women’s health by just doubling that. And yet it is a program that the conservatives want to defund even though none of the federal monies go to provide abortion coverage. Then there is education. Using the $71 billion from churches’ tax-exempt windfall would DOUBLE the discretionary spending of the Department of Education. Once again, there are politicians speaking out in 2016 about ELIMINATING the entire Department of Education…and presumably the federal funding that goes with it.

    As the percentage of “nones” increase in the United States, it is likely that a fledging movement might form to repeal the tax-exempt status of churches. If people want to worship in a beautiful edifice, want to provide mansions for their pastors, and want to have gold candleholders and artwork, then let them pay for it themselves. Don’t expect those of us who do not support religion to do so.

    And what would become of churches if they were not able to survive? Make them into libraries and bookstores!

    [1] Sikivu Hutchinson, Moral Combat: Black Atheists, Gender Politics, and the Values Wars (Los Angeles, CA: Infidel Books. Kindle Edition, 2011), 71.

    Reprinted with permission from the author.

    Karen L. Garst, PhD, is the former executive director of the Oregon Community College Association and Oregon State Bar. She writes at the Faithless Feminist.

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