Review: Brunson’s God and the IRS

I don’t frequently write about the intersection of religion and US taxation, but when I do, I, like a lot of people recently, point to Sam Brunson. There was no surprise when accusations of malfeasance against the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints broke, that professionals of all sorts turned to Sam for his reasoned and perspicacious analysis. He is the expert, and last year Cambridge University Press published his monograph.

Samuel D. Brunson, God and the IRS: Accommodating Religious Practice in United States Tax Law (Cambridge: Cambridge Univeresity Press, 2018), 260 pp., casewrap and paper bound.

Sam is a law professor at Loyola University Chicago. His specialty is taxation. He also has a knack for religious history and in this volume he lays out a sort of revelation for us folk who tend to think that taxes are rational. As he states early on in his volume, “there is no pattern or underlying sense to the way the tax law addresses religion” (p. 43). What’s that? He demonstrates the “ad hoc and accidental tax treatments of various religious individuals.” Some of the accommodations, Sam argues, “are appropriate, while others have no compelling reason for existing.” Beginning with disestablishment (the removal of state sponsored churches in the colonies/states) up through a proposed rationalization of the tax code for contemporary readers, Sam offers a clear and concise explanation of taxes and religion that is accessible to readers of all sorts.

Perhaps highlighting the reactionary nature of tax law in relation to religion, it seems like there is a little bit of everything here. Clerical payment, Social Security and the Amish, Quaker pacifism. And Sam highlights what this means: “The law is clear: the Constitution does not require the tax law to treat religious individuals differently from nonreligious individuals.” This is true whether the tax conflicts in some way with a deeply held belief or not. And yet, legislators (and more generally IRS bureaucrats) have made specific accommodations on a case by case basis. The result of this is that the judiciary does not mete out tax accommodation which are nested within a constitutional structure.

After chapters dealing with the parsonage allowance and objections to interest payment, we get into material that not only intersects with Mormon history but is critical to understanding both tax law and church history. There are significant sections on tithing payment and tax court, the deductability of missionary support payments (some of you like me remember when missionary support was not normalized), and communitarian organizations. And later in his concluding proposals for reforming the tax code, Sam is not uncritical of some of the existing accommodations.

Perhaps not dissimilar from his recent post, Sam demonstrates that there are hard questions that we should wrestle with, and that the history and policy of taxation is far more interesting and meaty that stereotypes suggest. This is surely a result of his talent as a scholar and author.

PS: Check out Sam’s recently published article “Mormon Profit: Brigham Young, Tithing, and the Bureau of Internal Revenue,” from the BYU Law Review.


  1. I felt shy about promoting the book when it was only available in hardcover at academic prices. Now I see a paperback available. Still not cheap, but closer to trade book range. Even though I come to this from decades of experience in the tax world (and a friendship with Sam that surely weighs on the scale) I would echo J.’s “we” as in “hard questions we should wrestle with.”

  2. Kevin Barney says:

    I had the opportunity to read a pre-publication version of the manuscript and loved it. Thanks for the review.

  3. I’ve read a great deal in God and the IRS — while I don’t understand everything, I understand more than I did before, and happily endorse Sam as a great teacher-through-stories.

  4. Aussie Mormon says:

    My kindle app tells me that in the past 19 months, I’ve managed to make my way through 56% of it with very non-consisting periods of reading. Coming at it from an outsider to the way US taxes work was a tad difficult (though that was to be expected), but now I’m over that hurdle I’m quite enjoying it.
    Currently towards the end of the section on still being able to pay tithing if you owe a tax debt and work for a company that requires payment of tithing for continued employment.

  5. Thanks, J., for the lovely review, and thank you Chris, Kevin, Ardis, and Aussie for your really nice comments.

    I wish I’d had input into the price, because I’d have set it lower initially. But for those who can find a copy at an affordable price, I’d love to hear what you think of it!

  6. I just bought the book on Kindle for a decent price ($17.20). Looking forward to reading it.

  7. There is no reason churches should be tax exempt, unless they don’t accept government services e.g. fire control, police services, public education, etc. (The Mormon church could eliminate the entire debt of Sudan and still have 40 billion to play with).

  8. Roger Terry says:

    I recently read Sam’s chapter, “‘To Omit Paying Tithing’: Brigham Young and the First Federal Income Tax,” in the compilation Business and Religion: The Intersection of Faith and Finance, the published proceedings of a symposium sponsored by BYU and the Church History Department in March 2018. It’s also an excellent piece of scholarship. Sam’s is a voice that deserves to be heard and listened to. Always informative.

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