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Monday, September 17, 2012

Solve fiscal woes by taxing the Church?

Paul Caron calls attention to a WaPo article suggesting that some are considering the Roman Catholic Church -- you know, the one with all the fancy art and deep "coffers" (See Garnett & Carr, "Drop Coffers," in The Green Bag) -- as a source of funds in fiscal-cliff times.  I have my doubts about the Post writer's characterization of the Church as "one of the last untouched sources of wealth" (the Dissolution of the Monasteries, anyone?), but it's an interesting and timely question.  If governments need money, why should they (a) spend money (through various subsidies and supports) on Church matters and (b) forego extracting money from (i.e., extend exeptions to) the Church?

We could think about this, I guess, just in terms of the overall costs and benefits to the relevant political community from current subsidies-and-exemptions practices.  Or, we could ask, at a more theoretical level, whether there are good reasons (having to do with things other than budgets) for changing those practices.   

At First Things,  Leroy Huizinga has some thoughts about the story.  He writes:

. . . Why shouldn’t churches be taxed, in general? One reason has to do with preserving a healthy separation of Church and State. If Churches can be taxed, then the government can get into the business of running them (or crushing them) through tax policy, like it does most everything else. Another reason is that private institutions like churches contribute to the common good both as charitable institutions directly serving people through its various programs and also as space as a community mediating between individual and the State. A third reason is more practical: Churches generally do a better job administering social programs than government does (which, one suspects, grates government functionaries). A fourth reason applicable to Europe in particular: The reason most people bother visiting Europe and spending significant tourist dollars there is the legacy of beauty produced by Europe’s Christian heritage. . . .

Of course, one knows why government wishes to control religion, going back at least to Hobbes. Religious institutions have often been the only entities effective in challenging State power, reminding rulers that there is a higher law than their whims and will, that they too stand under the judgment of God and nature. . . .

This last point is, for me, a powerful one, but it does invite this response:  Perhaps (as many Americans have thought over the years) churches' ability to effective "challeng[e] state power" is undermined by subsidies and Erastian co-option?  (I tend to think exemptions raise different questions, and that "separation" points toward, rather than away from, at least some exemptions.)

In the United States, it strikes me that private institutions of higher education might prove, to some, an analogously attractive source of fiscal relief?  We'll see. . .

Posted by Rick Garnett on September 17, 2012 at 11:56 AM in Rick Garnett | Permalink


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