What the Megachurches and Trump Have in Common (It’s Not Religion)
Americans have a special envy for the rich and famous. Blame it on a combination of the can-do- anything spirit, the quest for Hollywood-type fame, and the belief that wealth is the elixir for all human problems. Whatever the reasons, some Americans have elevated the wealthy, deserving, undeserving and even criminal, to be the pinnacles of human achievement.
Luck, crime and business acumen and education all play a role to various degrees, but the suspicious wealth of the Trump family requires a special evaluation since by many accounts, Trump has capitalized on his oily reputation and shady deals to become very rich.
In this, he differs from the great American capitalists, such as Carnegie, Rockefeller, Bezos and Buffett. Many of American‘s most wealthy have actually built businesses, been shrewd investors or created new industries, but Trump has had a role in shady financing and then developing some properties, but his main source of wealth seems to have been from inheriting money from his father (who received federal subsidies to build residences) and from licensing his name and reputation to other people’s buildings.
By any standard, Trump is rich. Forbes Magazine and Associated Press estimates found that Trump’s net worth went from $1 billion to $4 billion between 1988 and 2015. Yet during the same period, Bill Gates’s wealth increased from about $1 billion to $80 billion over the same period, while Warren Buffett’s wealth increased from $2.5 billion.
By comparison, “Trump’s returns are less even than those of an ordinary investor saving for retirement,” according to the Washington Post. A Business Week (now Bloomberg) estimate assumed that Trump was worth $100 million in 1978 and if he had sold his real estate and put his money in a passive S&P 500 index fund and reinvested the dividends, he would have posted a 200% gain that would be worth $6 billion today, according to the calculator maintained by the blog Don’t Quit Your Day Job.
Instead, Trump invested in ventures that suited his personality and ability to raise money from banks and investors. He invested in beauty pageants, failed colleges, wine, a clothing line, a university and branding. In short, Trump has produced few tangible, successful products or properties that would earn his the reputation of a major capitalist.
His wealth is very modern in that it is based on manipulating his image, leverage, secrecy, threats, bluster and theft. USA Today said Trump was involved in “at least 3,500 legal actions in federal and state courts during the past three decades. They range from skirmishes with casino patrons to million-dollar real estate suits to personal defamation lawsuits.” But there is another reason: Trump is afraid of discussing his taxes. Why?
Why Trump Appeals to Megachurches
Like Trump, in many ways, the mega-evangelical churches also rely on a polished image combined with the hope that their message can improve peoples’ lives. These same mega-churches also do not pay income or real estate taxes.
Taxing churches is a controversial topic, but there are about 300,000 religious congregations in the country that pay “no tax, no federal, state, or local, no income, sales or property tax,” yet they own $600 billion in property, according to Bill Maher. (Maher also quoted Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard who said that the only way to make any real money in this world was to start a religion or found a church.)
Since Trump has never revealed his tax returns as president, he may have something in common with the evangelical churches that support him. But there may be other common denominators.
Many evangelicals and Republicans oppose abortion, but this was not always the case. When he was governor of California in 1967, Ronald Reagan signed into law the most liberal abortion bill in the country. But in May 1969, a group of African-American parents in Holmes County, Mississippi, sued the Treasury Department to prevent three new whites-only K-12 private academies from securing full tax-exempt status, arguing that their discriminatory policies prevented them from being considered “charitable” institutions, as reported in Politico.
Ironically, it was the Nixon Administration’s IRS and Justice Department that sought to marry the issues of racial segregation with a religious institution’s tax-exempt status. Again, the issues here were segregation and taxes, not abortion since this was well before the Jan. 23, 1973 Supreme Court decision in the abortion lawsuit of Roe v. Wade.
So while the megachurches avoid paying their full share of taxes and use abortion as a diversion, Trump also follows a similar strategy. In both cases, they want to keep as much money as possible for themselves.