Does deductibility really influence church giving? Salt Lake Tribune skirts the question, sort of

The fact that Americans who itemize their income tax deductions can also deduct their donations to the church, mosque, synagogue or (recognized) religious outpost of their choice is a cherished part of American taxation, something that's not true in all nations of the world.

Now, the latest tax reform proposal knocking around Congress may -- or may not -- put a dent in such deducting. If the "standard deduction" of $5,500 for individuals and $11,000 for married couples is doubled, as proponents want, the thinking goes, more folks will skip itemizing and just go with the higher number. No itemizing means less in the collection plate, they theorize.

But here's the journalistic question: Does a mere assertion mean something's a fact? Logic would say no, but sometimes a media outlet will seem to glide around logic for a compelling story. At the least, that's how it could look to a reader.

The Salt Lake Tribune, serving a state where returning tithe is mandatory for Mormons, dives right in to the charitable deduction issue, leading with a dramatic point:

A Republican tax plan being debated on Capitol Hill maintains the deduction for charitable giving but still may have an unintended consequence that could hurt donations to churches and nonprofit groups.
The impact of the tax bill — if passed and signed into law — could mean less revenue for the LDS Church and other denominations and faith-based organizations as well as groups like the Salvation Army, Goodwill and humanitarian operations.
One study shows the GOP tax plan could lessen giving by nearly 5 percent even as Republicans are defending the legislation as protecting churches and nonprofits.

Does one study a reality make? It might, given the source:

A study by the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy found that expanding the standard deduction and decreasing the top marginal tax rate — as the Republican legislation does — could decrease giving between $4.9 billion and $13.1 billion annually. That cut could mean a reduction in donations to religious organizations by as much as 4.7 percent and other charitable groups by 4.4 percent.

But I'm not sure I'd swallow that assertion wholesale, even if it comes from Indiana University's very well known and highly respected philanthropy school. Why? Because on-the-street experience of religious practice might suggest otherwise.

Let's start with the faith community headquartered in the Tribune's hometown, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Our Mormon friends take tithing very seriously: A member must faithfully tithe as one of several conditions for a "recommend" from their local bishop that allows them to attend an LDS Temple. Being "temple worthy" is also a condition of employment in LDS Church administrative offices, of which there are more than a few in Utah.

So I'm not inclined to believe that a Mormon whose "standard deduction" goes up will suddenly stop tithing, any more than I believe the faithful of any religious community would put an undue emphasis on deductibility. There's a tacit acknowledgment of this from one of the several Utah-based members of Congress quoted by the Tribune:

In the end, Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, says he’s not concerned that the effort to revise the tax code will hurt donations to churches and criticized those who believe people only give to charity to help their tax bill.
“Those who sincerely donate to their faith or cause, do so by the principle of charity,” Bishop said in a statement. “Legislation based on the assumption that people give simply for a tax write-off is overly cynical and sad.”

Unfortunately for readers, Bishop's words come in the final two paragraphs of the piece. Placing them higher in the story might have helped readers a bit more.

Moreover, the Tribune may not have been aware that Rep. Kevin Brady, R-Texas, who chairs the House Ways and Means Committee that writes tax law, was rather emphatic about preserving and enhancing the charitable deduction. According to the Washington Examiner, Brady made his comments on October 18, several days before the Tribune story ran:

Speaking at the Baker Institute in Houston, Brady said that the committee is trying to "think fresh" about maintaining incentives for charitable giving and homeownership in the GOP bill.
"We are exploring the home mortgage deduction, and charitable, and looking at ways perhaps we could extend it across the economy, not just for those who itemize it," Brady said.

The, er, bottom line? It might have been good to do a reality check on what motivates charitable giving as practiced by the person in the pews. Emphasizing that might have resulted in a better, if somewhat less dramatic, news article.

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