The spark was allegations about the wealth of celebrity pastor Joel Osteen. But it wasn’t the first time that “tax the churches” has circulated. In fact, it is slogan that long predates social media—Frank Zappa was singing it back in 1981, and Mark Twain expressed similar sentiments many decades before that.
As a sociologist of religion, I’ve long been interested in why religious institutions are exempt from certain taxes and what that means in potential lost revenue for the U.S. In 2012, I examined this issue and estimated that in total, churches in the U.S. get out of paying around $71 billion in taxes annually.