We all know that the Christian faith is slowly dying out in most of Europe, but did you happen to catch the Wall Street Journal story last Tuesday about how Germany taxes churchgoers, and how a proposed hike in the tax on churchgoers is expected to reduce church attendance even further? Here’s the lede:
FRANKFURT—In Germany, being an official church member usually means paying an extra tax. But a change in the country’s tax code is now causing many believers to leave the fold.
Germany is just one of a number of European countries where members of the main organized religions pay a special levy on income to provide the bulk of churches’ finances. But when a loophole concerning income from capital gains closes next year, church leaders have good reason to expect an exodus.
So far this year, the number of Germans leaving the country’s Protestant and Catholic churches has reached its highest level in 20 years, twice last year’s level—a surge many clergy and finance experts blame on the changes in how the tax is levied.
The outflow is now fueling a debate about whether a levy that goes back to the 19th century is an appropriate way to finance churches in an increasingly secularized Germany.
There are so many things wrong with this story (not the reporting, which is terrific—it’s the subject matter) that it is hard to know where to begin. Start first with the reflex of the state: since fewer people are going to church, let’s hike the tax more to make up for the revenue shortfall.
Second, doesn’t one suspect that compelled charity to a denomination is likely among the (many) reasons for the decline of Christian faith on the continent? I am told that Sweden has wonderful government-maintained Lutheran churches that are virtually empty on Sunday, but if you do go, don’t expect the pastor to say anything of significance—and certainly nothing controversial—because they are government employees, subject to all of the constraints of “diversity” and political correctness these days. It’s a wonder any Swedish pastor is even allowed to believe in God.
Germans need to sit down and ponder Thomas Jefferson’s famous Virginia Statute on Religious Liberty (1786), in which among other things he reminds us:
[I]t tends only to corrupt the principles of that religion it is meant to encourage, by bribing with a monopoly of worldly honours and emoluments. . . even the forcing him to support this or that teacher of his own religious persuasion, is depriving him of the comfortable liberty of giving his contributions to the particular pastor, whose morals he would make his pattern, and whose powers he feels most persuasive to righteousness, and is withdrawing from the ministry those temporary rewards, which proceeding from an approbation of their personal conduct, are an additional incitement to earnest and unremitting labours for the instruction of mankind. . .
I wrote a longer essay about this whole subject a while back for the Acton Institute; you can find the whole thing here.