SONNY SCOTT:Churches, the IRS and tax deductions: 'No way'

By Sonny Scott

Comedy has been in short supply in the campaign of 2012, but we had an amusing September. Under relentless pressure, Romney released proof that he paid $1.9 million in income tax in 2010. Democrats, who had assured us that they had it on good authority that Romney had paid no tax, didn’t miss a beat. Without so much as a blush, they segued into attacking Romney for 1) paying too little, and 2) not taking all the deductions to which he was entitled. You can’t make this stuff up.
Despite the unprincipled opportunism, the Democrats’ implicit criticism of Romney for his generosity to his church raises a legitimate question: Though contributions to a church count as charitable contributions, should they? Not in my opinion.
We labor under the fiction that we have a strict separation of church and state in the U.S. In fact, what separation we have came in fits and starts. It was 1833 before Massachusetts disestablished its official church. Americans prize their smorgasbord of religious choices, but have never embraced a completely secular state as envisioned by Jefferson. Most seem to share George Washington’s view that organized religion serves as a complement to governmental authority. We have an assortment of semi-established (or tolerated, if you prefer) churches. Their operations are largely tax-exempt, and contributions to them are tax deductible.
Churches tend to lick the stroking hand of governmental preferment by encouraging patriotism and acquiescence to civil law. The church I attended as a youth had the flags of Christ and the American Empire on its podium during Bible School sessions. I heard sermons defending American policy in Vietnam, questioning the faith and patriotism of Martin Luther King, and defending the shooting of unarmed students at Kent State. This alliance of church and state bore some strange fruit.
Granted, some churches sponsor some activities conducive to the general welfare, and they are rewarded by tax deductions for donors. But the fact is, donations that go toward building elaborate campuses, gilded Communion chalices, and tasseled banners for kids to salute enjoy the same status as those that go to feed and shelter the poor.
Listening to political speeches, I am reminded of the debt that politicians owe to preachers – or maybe it’s the other way around. The candidate’s voice rises to a higher pitch (like a child’s when he’s trying to get mom to buy an unlikely story), allusions to popular legends or heroes of the party multiply, and talking points/doctrine repeat in a loop. I realize the mutual debt that Protestant preachers and politicians owe to each other. Oh, one other similarity: the more improbable or unsupported the point, the louder and more highly pitched the speaker’s diction.
Famous clergyman Lyman Beecher was an opponent of disestablishment in his state. Later, he admitted that he had been wrong. He came to regard it as “the best thing that ever happened to … Connecticut. It cut the churches loose from dependence on state support. It threw them wholly on their own resources and on God.” Who knows what benefits might accrue to today’s churches to make the last step in complete reliance on their God? What if the right hand gave without the knowledge of the left … if donors gave solely in gratitude, rather than as a financial strategy… if their loyalty were undivided between God and Caesar?

SONNY SCOTT is a Chickasaw County resident and a community columnist. Contact him at

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