I have often wondered why the bureaucrats in the United States are considered able to determine what is a denomination or even a religion. Are a number of career bureaucrats competent to make such distinctions? Two examples I can think of are:

  1. In 1906 the Census Bureau is credited with classifying congregations of the American restoration movement into denominations called "Churches of Christ" and "Disciples of Christ". For the non-denominationalists among them, this must have seemed anywhere from silly to outrageous. (The Disciples of Christ have since officially declared themselves to be a denomination, however.)
  2. In 1993 the IRS formally recognized the Church of Scientology as a religion for tax purposes. In this case I'm sure Scientologists wanted it, but what makes the IRS competent to decide?

I suspect the first question that comes to many is, if not them, who?   Well, if the government has to make religious distinctions, shouldn't there be people trained in religion be involved in making them? I'm not saying they would have to be believers in any given ideology, just that they have the background knowledge to understand what they are deciding. So were such people involved in the decision making process?

  • 1
    Decent start would be the IRS tax code here: irs.gov/irm/part4/irm_04-076-006.html#d0e306 Feb 12, 2017 at 3:19
  • @DavidGrinberg thanks for the link. I don't think I'm competent to interpret all that, though. 😏 However, my scan did not seem to indicate people trained in theology or philosophy would necessarily be involved.
    – RichF
    Feb 12, 2017 at 3:41
  • If I had to guess I would agree. Its probably some bureaucratic process defined by legislation. That being said, there is a good chance that the legislation would have been influenced by religious leaders. Pure speculation though. Feb 12, 2017 at 3:45
  • I know some states have allowed Flying Spaghetti Monster adherents to wear colanders (their religious headgear) in their driver's license photos. Note that President Trump is trying to change the linked IRS regulations, particularly the "Participating in any political campaign" portion.
    – user2565
    Feb 12, 2017 at 16:11
  • 3
    @barrycarter My actual feeling, explicitly avoided in the question, is that the government should get out of the religion-defining business altogether. Don't making "religions" tax exempt, but instead organizations (in general) which spend money on good works strongly tax-favored. If that means only The Salvation Army and The Bahai end up meeting the qualifications, so be it. Whose mouth says what is irrelevant. What is whose wallet saying?
    – RichF
    Feb 12, 2017 at 16:23

1 Answer 1


Short answer: Neither the IRS nor the Census Bureau employ subject-matter experts of any kind to decide what is or is not a church or religion. The Census Bureau just doesn't collect that data. They do re-publish data from an academic survey, but that survey just aggregates responses to open-ended questions (avoiding the problem entirely). The IRS must make a determination what is a church, but for their purposes specific theological content is irrelevant.

The Census Bureau Does Not Collect Religious Affiliation Data

The Census Bureau stopped collecting data on religious affiliation in 1957. According to the Bureau they originally collected this data as part of a survey independent of the decennial census, called the Census of Religious Bodies.

You can see that there is no religious affiliation information in the demographic data by using their interactive population tool.

Finally, federal law prohibits the Census Bureau from asking questions about religious affiliation. This law was passed in 1976.

The Statistical Abstract

The Census Bureau does publish the Statistical Abstract, which includes religious and denominational affiliation data. If you download one of their Excel files, it includes a note explaining what they do.

The data comes from the American Religious Identification Survey, which is performed by Trinity College's Institute for the Study of Secularism in Society and Culture. Both of the PIs are demographers with a background in public policy.

The survey uses open-ended questions when asking about religious and denominational affiliation. Respondents are not prompted with a list of acceptable answers to choose from, they are just asked about their affiliation and then the results are aggregated.

The notes are contained in Excel files. To save anyone the trouble of downloading them and finding the notes, I have copied them below.

The American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS) 2008 replicated the methodology of ARIS 2001 and NSRI 1990. The three surveys are based on a random-digit-dialing telephone surveys: 54,461 interviews in 2008, 50,281 interviews in 2001 and 113,723 in 1990, all in American residential households in the continental U.S.A (48 states). Respondents were asked to describe themselves in terms of religion with an open-ended question. Interviewers did not prompt or offer a suggested list of potential answers. Moreover, the self-description of respondents was not based on whether established religious bodies, institutions, churches, mosques or synagogues considered them to be members. Quite the contrary, the surveys sought to determine whether the respondents themselves regarded themselves as adherents of a religious community. Subjective rather than objective standards of religious identification were tapped by the surveys]

Note about non-denominational responses:

Because of the subjective nature of replies to open-ended questions, these categories are the most unstable as they do not refer to clearly identifiable denominations as much as underlying feelings about religion. Thus they may be the most subject to fluctuation over time.

And about agnostics:

Atheist included in Agnostic.


The IRS is in charge of enforcing tax policy by appropriately collecting taxes. The Internal Revenue Code uses the word "church" without defining it. This creates a problem for the IRS, as they have to enforce a rule that isn't adequately defined. To resolve this problem they have a list of criteria that help them decide what is a church and what isn't. The list is here, but importantly there is no consideration of what their beliefs are.

Short answer - No they do not employ theologians. The IRS does not take into consideration the content of a religion's beliefs when deciding what is a church.

  • This was accepted, but I just realized it doesn't address the IRS - only the Census. Will edit to include. Feb 20, 2017 at 21:26
  • @RichF - The IRS info was surprisingly easy to find. I also added a thesis at the top which hopefully is more clear. Feb 20, 2017 at 21:34

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