Culture At Large

Christian giving and the myth of charitable tax deductions

Ben Bartlett

Charitable tax deductions are easy to defend. Who doesn't like the idea of rewarding people who give to their church, their community or some other worthy cause? It is an extremely difficult issue to touch politically, because nobody wants to be against rewarding charitable people.

There are a bunch of problems with that line of thinking, but I’ll offer one in particular. Charitable tax deductions aren't there to benefit generous people. They are there to benefit rich people.

See, there are really only three groups who give money to charity. The first includes those who don’t benefit from charitable tax donations. That means almost everyone who is poor, doesn't own a house, gives less than $10,000 or doesn't bother to itemize their tax returns. So, basically, most of us.

The second group includes genuinely generous people who have money. They give no matter what: they are driven by passion and conviction, whether that means supporting local art or faithfully tithing to the church. To them, charitable tax deductions are a nice way to reduce losses, but that fact does not make or break the giving impulse. In fact, giving in line with their passions may not meet the criteria for the deduction and they can easily “lose” as a result.

Finally there are those who have lots of money and lots of accountants to do their taxes. This group loves charitable tax deductions because by “giving,” they put themselves in a lower tax bracket and actually save money. In other words, their generosity is really just a tool for greed.

Now, let’s say you run a faith-based nonprofit that depends on charitable giving. The government proposes reducing charitable tax deductions for the rich, as has been discussed as part of President Barack Obama's jobs bill. You immediately join with other nonprofits, hire a lobbyist and encourage everyone you know to fight the proposal. Why?

This is the uncomfortable part. You’re not worried about money from the first group; their giving is unaffected. You’re not worried about giving from the second group; their passion drives them and they give regardless. No, you know that as soon as those deductions reduce, so will your contributions from rich people who want to get richer. You defend them because it is the only way you can defend yourself and your work. You rely on their self-service.

I raise this issue for a few reasons. First, it highlights a common hazard for Christians dabbling in politics: things are almost never as black and white as they seem. This is not to say goodness and altruism cannot exist in politics, because they can. But it is a very good reason for Christians to exercise great care in their interactions with politics, because often vice uses the language of virtue to cover its tracks.

Second, it reminds us to consider our own giving habits. Greed is present in all of us, whether we have means to benefit from a charitable tax deduction or not. Even as I complain about the games rich people play to save money, I am reminded of the times that I “forgot” to bring my checkbook to church; or the ways I overestimate my own generosity so I can give less; or the things I do to serve myself in the name of the church.

Finally, exposing the greedy use of a government perk reminds us that nowhere on Earth will we find pure, untainted generosity. The only true generosity was displayed when the Father gave his one and only Son to die on a cross that we might be reconciled to Him, despite our rebellion and filth and unworthiness. Through Jesus we are made new and we are called to participate in proclaiming His gospel throughout the world.

Now that’s a gift worth giving.

(Photo courtesy of iStockphoto.)

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