Longer answer: actually, still no.
On Wednesday, Mitt Romney called Donald Trump out for not releasing his tax returns.[fn1] At the GOP debate last night, Trump explained that he wasn’t releasing his tax returns because he’s currently under audit. But his post-debate explanation of why he might be under audit is what piqued my interest (and motivated this post): he said the IRS may have targeted him
maybe because of religion, maybe because I’m doing something else, maybe because I’m doing this, although this is just recently.
When pressed on what he meant by saying he may have been targeted because of his religion, he elaborated:
Well maybe because of the fact that I’m a strong Christian, and I feel strongly about it. And maybe there’s a bias,” Trump said, adding, “You see what’s happened. I mean, you have many religious groups have been complaining about that. They’ve been complaining about it for a long time.[fn2]
If Trump’s Christianity[fn3] led to his audit, presumably we, as Mormons, should be concerned, too. The American public views Mormons less warmly than other Christian religions.
Fortunately, religious affiliation doesn’t appear to affect the likelihood of audit. My friend and sometime coauthor David Herzig has a great explanation of why not here. I want to reiterate one of his points, and add a couple more.
The one I want to reiterate is this: audits are really, really rare. The IRS is underfunded, and Congress cuts their funding every year. In fact, in 2015, the individual audit rate hovered somewhere below 1 percent. That means, on average, one out of every 100 tax returns were audited.
But for individuals making more than $1 million, the audit rate was ten times higher. One in ten of these high-income individuals faced an audit in 2015. So on its face, Trump’s audit was probably triggered by his income, not his religious affiliation.[fn4]
Those numbers also tell us that Christianity is a tremendously unlikely trigger. Per Pew, 70.6% of Americans identify as Christian. Christian affiliation, then, would be a really, really blunt instrument to use to figure out who to audit.
And frankly, it’s really hard to tell religious affiliation from tax returns. If you’re one of the 30 percent or so of Americans who itemize deductions, and pay tithing to the church, you’ll include the name of the church on your tax return. But figuring out who to audit by looking through 147 million returns and trying to find particular religious donations seems like a really inefficient way to target delinquent taxpayers, especially because, to the best of my knowledge, there’s no correlation between religious affiliation and cheating on taxes.
Which is to say, you can rest easy that your religious affiliation isn’t going to increase your likelihood of audit. (Though if you’re really worried about it, you might want to make sure you don’t earn more than $1 million in any given year.)
[fn1] (Side note: candidates’ releasing their tax returns has a long and storied history, going back at least to Nixon in 1952. In fact, if you want to see past presidential tax returns, as well as the returns of several former presidential candidates, you can look here.)
[fn2] You can watch the video of his explanation here if you want.
[fn3] By the way, any comments debating Trump’s assertion that he is a Christian will be immediately and unceremoniously deleted. For purposes of this post, his religiousity is only relevant to the extent it did or did not motivate an IRS audit.
[fn4] As a side note, he’s not completely clear about who the IRS is auditing. He’s presumably a partner in several partnerships, and the owner of several corporations, and it’s certainly possible that he’s conflating audits of his various entities