Taxing The Church
Last week, in this space, I wrote about the importance of SCS, or the separation of Church and State. My words led to an email debate with a reader over whether the Church deserves their tax exempt status. My feeling is that, although there are some seriously strong arguments in favour of maintaining the tax free status, I think overall, society would be better served if the Church paid taxes. “The Church”, in this case, by the way, is the body of religions that have been followed throughout history.
The reader was decidedly in favour of the clergy class getting all the tax-related goodies from the government they could, for the good works done by them, but that the status quo is not appropriate. Having tax free status for a group such as The Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster; The Pastafarians, (a real church worthy of a Google search) is an insult to him. The last point was one the reader and I could agree on, actually.
Throughout history, and in most cultures, the Church, with various levels of success, was the social service providers of their day. This was long before there was any discussion whatsoever, regarding institutionalized, government-run social services. The early Church were the ones to take care of the widows and orphans, visited the sick and made sure their ‘flock’ was well tended. In return, the Church was given their tax-free status with the understanding that The Powers That Be would not interfere with the Church, and the Church would stay out of the business of The Powers That Be. A historical leader who tried to govern while at odds with his clergy had a much more difficult time. It was well worth the payoff to the social contract.
This model worked well for centuries, more or less, depending on your opinion of what, “working well” might entail. The widow and orphan crowd were happy, the local friar was happy and the King was happy, too.
Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, depending on your viewpoint, the world has become a much more complex place. The Church proved incapable of delivering social services with the even-handedness and sophistication progressive societies began to demand. Retail social services were only one part of the Church’s focus over the millennia, however. No regent would have ignored the value of the other historical responsibilities of the Church with regard to such aspects as the mental well-being of their citizens and the maintenance of a moral standard in the community. These were obviously desirable influences from a governance point of view when the Church wielded more influence in our society than they do today.
Now, however, the Church’s influence appears to be declining, other than in the Middle East, it seems, and the Church itself is much less homogeneous with far fewer responsibilities to society than ever before. How do they deserve their tax-free status?
The reader maintained, for “real” religions, the practice of administering positive messaging amongst the flock and proving moral guidance is as important, if not more so, than ever.
The problem, however, is that some of those morals, such as institutionalized homophobia, are seen to be inhumane and intolerant. Morals now seem almost like a quaint, outdated concept and if you believe in them, it makes you into some kind of emotional and cultural fogey-saurus. This ignores, of course, the societies which have fallen; having been ignobly brought down by the wholesale degeneration of their culture’s morals. Rome is a terrific example of this.
The question then becomes, “What is a religion?” What differentiates the specious Pastafarians or the well-heeled Salvation By Donation TV church, from the reader’s own evangelical Pentecostal Church? To an atheist, there would be very little to set them apart. The deities worshipped by these differing groups are each, just as unlikely to exist, in their view. Whatever the State does to help these religions, from the totally secular perspective, only institutionalizes the belief in mythical beings and forces non-believers to help support the whole charade through their tax-free status.
For my debating partner, being compared to a Pastafarian was an insult. Adherence to the Flying Spaghetti Monster is not a religion to him, but it is an abomination that this group is a recognized church.
For him the differences are obvious. A religion, in his mind, must satisfy a number of questions (which should be monitored by a citizen committee for adherence to these tests, in his opinion).
Does it do good works in the community? (He was proud, for example, his church fed over 300 needy people in Edmonton with Thanksgiving supper.) Does it minister to people who are not part of their membership? Are they secretive or are they open to public scrutiny? For my correspondent, the answer to these questions sets his church apart from the colander-wearing Pastafarians.
The reader mentioned my own tax dodge; The Calmar Drama Society. Why should we get the benefit of government assistance? If we can’t stand independently without a tax free benefit, maybe we shouldn’t be in business, he suggested. Given our narrow focus I must admit that maybe he’s right.
I’ll tell you what; let’s make everyone pay taxes, but let them be bracketed like income taxes. If a church or charity or theatre group makes money above the poverty line, they should be made to pay, after factoring in the value of their contribution to society. That seems like the fairest way. It wouldn’t change the Calmar Prairie Players very much, with our meagre income. For charlatan church leaders and administration-heavy charities, it might make all the difference in the world. To make the fakes and players pay their share of taxes would be A Very Good Thing. I think my reader might even agree with that plan.
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