Maher Stirs Charitable Deduction Questions

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Randy Miramontez /

May 4, 2012; Source: Mediaite           

HBO’s Bill Maher recently weighed in on the question of what should and should not qualify for charitable—that is, tax deductible—donations. We suspect that Maher’s audience for these charitable giving comments probably surpassed some of the programs at nonprofit conferences debating this issue. So what did Maher say?

First, according to Mediaite, he argued that Mitt Romney “should be giving money to an actual charity rather than just the standard tithe to the Mormon Church.” His argument against charitable gifts to the Mormons has several components. One was that the good works of the Mormon Church are not the primary purpose of the religion. Maher should probably have acknowledged that religion, not charity, is the primary purpose of all religions. While the Catholic Church has a number of well recognized charitable arms, sacerdotal functions, rather than charitable functions, occupy the bulk of what the Catholic Church does. Is Maher arguing against charitable gifts to all religions?

Well, in a way he is, though he is a bit harsher on the Mormons than other religions. He describes the Mormon Church as “a cult” and “ridiculous.” As a professional free-thinker, Maher thinks that all religions are cults, just that the Mormons are more cult-like because, he contends, they are more secretive. It is difficult to imagine, however, that the Mormons are all that more secretive than the Catholic Church’s Opus Dei, for example. But the secretiveness continuum doesn’t seem to be as important to Maher as his concern that churches simply aren’t charities and taxpayers should not have to subsidize the loss in tax revenues from Romney’s tithing to the church, or anyone’s contributions to churches (or synagogues or mosques, for that matter). He contends, “It is fair game to ask what should constitute a charity.”

Second, Maher extends his questions about charitable giving beyond giving to religion. He asks, for example, whether donations for the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles should qualify. To Maher, the concert hall isn’t a charitable function, because “unlike food and water, access to Mozart is not a basic human necessity.”

Third, he further extends his question about the arts as a charitable activity to the charitable character of certain schools of higher education. Although he spent his college years at Cornell University, Maher says he has never given the school a dime because with its “giant endowment,” as he described it, the school is well off. In other words, nonprofit wealth and assets constitute factors in Maher’s concept of charitable deductibility. “I don’t think giving to opera is charity either, or giving to Cornell, which has plenty of f—ing money and never needs any” Maher says.

What do you think of Bill Maher’s three points, which would seem to call for modifying the charitable deduction? Do you think Maher’s recent commentaries about what kinds of entities should qualify as charitable might affect the charitable deduction debate?—Rick Cohen

  • ross

    Why should anyone care what Maher thinks? The man is nothing more than a rude, foul-mouthed boor, and the fact that some people like him is a sad commentary on a sick society

  • Q

    Maher’s main point was that there is a difference between what is and is not a charity. That giving money to things like the Opera, or Mormon Church that builds castles is not a charity. That small clinics which run out of dilapidated strip malls that help provide food to the hungry or health care to poor should qualify as a charitable donation.

  • Stephen L. Stapley

    So, other than the DNC and Obama PAC’s…what charities/cults/religions and how much has dufus Maher “contributed?”

  • LindaSDF

    I fail to understand why anyone takes this guy’s opinions as any more relevant or valid than anyone else’s.

    The LDS church (Mormons) define “Charity” as “The pure love of Christ”. However, if you define “charity” as giving alms to the poor or taking care of those who can’t take care of themselves, then the LDS church MORE than qualifies as a charity. Just go to to see how we are very much a charity.

  • Dwight Rogers

    n the year 2007 alone, the Church responded to major earthquakes in 5 countries, massive fires in 6 countries, hunger and famine in 18 countries, and flooding and severe storms in 34 countries. In total the Church and its members responded to 170 major events — nearly one every two days for the entire year. The motivation behind this vast global work centers on the simple charge given by Jesus so many years ago to “love thy neighbor as thyself.”

    The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints conducts humanitarian activities worldwide. From 1985 to 2009 Humanitarian Services provided more than $1.2 billion in total assistance to needy individuals in 178 countries and territories. This church has 16 million members world-wide and five million in the United States. They were first at Katrina and brought food, clothing, and their hard backs and arms to help there. 
    In 1996 the Church organized Latter-day Saint Charities as a non-governmental organization to facilitate humanitarian activities in selected countries. 

    The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints provides relief and development projects for humanitarian purposes in countries all over the world. Projects operate without regard to the nationality or religion of the recipients. 

    * Humanitarian service may include emergency response to natural disasters, such as an earthquake or a tsunami, or man-made disasters, such as the effects of war and famine. It may also be part of a longer-term effort to meet serious and more entrenched human needs, such as the need to alleviate disease. 

    * Within hours of a disaster, the Church works with local government officials to determine what supplies and food are needed. Materials are then immediately sent to the area. 

    * After urgent needs are met, the Church looks for additional ways to help with the long-term needs of the community. The Church’s approach is to help people become self-reliant by teaching skills and providing resources for a self-sustained life. 

    * Donations, principally from Church members but also from people around the world, are used to make relief projects possible. One hundred percent of the donations given to the Church’s humanitarian services are used for relief efforts. The Church absorbs its own overhead costs. 

    * The humanitarian services arm of the Church sponsors five ongoing global projects to help people become more self-reliant. Initiatives include neonatal resuscitation training, clean water projects, wheelchair distribution, vision treatment and measles vaccinations. 

    7.5 million people now have access to clean water because of the Church’s humanitarian efforts throughout the world over the past 10 years?
    550,000 people have benefited from the Church’s vision projects?
    415,000 have received wheelchairs or other mobility devices?
    The people of 58 countries received relief supplies after 119 disasters in 2010 alone?
    The list goes on. Millions of Mormons make donations and volunteer their service to bring about such efforts. This is plutocratic oligarchy? Please, professor.

  • Thaddeus

    The government has an interest in supporting religions through tax deductible donations. Religions cultivate a citizenry equipped with character, honesty, love, and commitment that government is notoriously bad at teaching — no number of laws will create a populace with integrity and fidelity, but religious devotion can and does.

  • Joe

    Maher said something about there not being any poor Mormons. If this is true it is a very wonderful thing, especially since most Mormons live outside of the United States. The LDS Church donates billions in dollars and hours to humanitarian efforts, education, Catholic and other Church charities, the Red Cross, etc etc.

  • Michael Clifton

    Maher is a very smart doofus. That means he can sound so right even when what he is saying misses the point entirely.

    I would contend that Maher doesn’t know what “charity” means in either legal or moral or religious contexts. He certainly doesn’t exemplify it.

    Having said that, I also think he has a point or two that might be worth considering.

    Is everything we call “charity” really charity? Has the definition been or become so broad that it is abused? In an age when fiscal restraint is touted as a value next to godliness (with apologies to Maher for mentioning another concept he likely knows little about, or at least cares nothing for), it is not inappropriate to rethink some ideas that are potentially nothing more than time-honoured.

    It is therefore probably fair to question whether certain institutions and objectives should be characterized as charitable.

    However, I do not think Maher has the right criteria in mind. He references “basic necessities” and seems to mean solely material ones (i.e., food and water). Is the meeting of such basic needs charity’s exclusive domain? Can it not be the case that raising people up to greater opportunities, to the potential for a more fulfilling life, is also charitable? And even if we limit charity to dealing with what is basic needs, why only identify material ones? Why not spirituality, sociality, art and education? Are these not amongst the basic needs of *human beings*? Why can’t the experience of Mozart’s music be considered a charitable aim?

    Another fair question suggested by, thought not expressly included in, Maher’s comments is whether some charitable objectives are more worthy of tax assistance than others. Should there be grades in the tax breaks (i.e., higher and lower percentages) for different types of charitable giving?

    Of course, when we open this door, we could also open up other aspects of the question that might go in a different direction than Maher imagines (i.e., a direction he might not have thought about when composing his diatribe). For example, perhaps we should be rewarding more than just financial giving (or gifts which translate easily to the same). Do we not generally regard gifts of time as of equal, and sometimes greater, value than money? Isn’t the giving of one’t time and strength often a greater demonstration of charitable intent and involvement? Should we therefore reward volunteers who spend sometimes as many hours in charitable service as they do at their occupations by offering them a tax break based on some sort of hourly rate equivalency?

    In the end, at least based on this report, Maher seems to have raised a few good points, but in a characteristically uncharitable and incomplete manner.