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I suppose when the weight of the State starts to collapse in on itself and you’ve mismanaged your own finances, why not go after the one thing that’s been generally off limits to your rapacity? The Washington Post reports there is serious conversation in Europe about taxing churches in various ways .

Governments have a long history of this. The Roman governors of Judea, like Pontius Pilate and Gessius Florus, among others, often tried to finagle their way metaphorically or literally into the Jewish Temple’s treasury, which was more or less loaded, as (in principle) every Jewish male adult had to pay a half-shekel (=two drachmas) tax annually in support of the Temple and its operations. You can imagine such Roman moves almost precipitated a war several times, and indeed Gessius Florus’ rapacity in this regard was one of the contributing factors to the outbreak of the Jewish War (also known as the First Revolt) in AD 66. And we all know how Henry VIII basically stole the properties and wealth of the Church of his day to enrich his own coffers while establishing an alternative Church that would serve his power.

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. I speak here of course of the great Cathedrals and churches of Europe, as well as European art, much of which is Christian.

Obviously the situation is different in the many countries in Europe which have State churches than it is in America. For instance, in my sacred Germany both Catholic and Protestant (Lutheran) churches are supported by but also to a big degree controlled by the State in arrangements going back to Otto von Bismarck’s policies (and his ” War against Catholicism “, his Kulturkampf ) in the Second Reich. Nevertheless, whether here or there, the libertas ecclesiae (the freedom of the Church) must be respected.

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.

One example in our own day that comes to mind concerns the former Communist East Germany, the German Democratic Republic. The churches — primarily Lutheran, since as history and geography would have it, eastern Germany was where the Lutheran Reformation took strongest hold — were the one place where there was a decent modicum of social space to think, to speak, to plan, to pray. And so it was out of the Churches that the movement that ultimately ended European and Soviet communism arose .

East German authorities had been less concerned about crushing the Church than Communists in other places. (Indeed, in 1983, the celebrations of Luther’s 500th birthday in East Germany were spectacular.) I’ve asked quite a few German academics and pastors why this was so, and there are basically several answers. First, Luther had woven his way deeply into the German people, and so even under communism the Lutheran heritage was respected. Second, the East Germans weren’t necessarily all that committed to communism, given that they had been fighting the Soviet communists until 1945; east Germany’s conversion to communism was less than pure. Third, the East Germans thought they could co-opt religion to serve their ends, and so one often finds old East German posters portraying Luther as a proto-revolutionary, ironic as that is: “Widerrufen kann und will ich nicht!” (“I cannot and will not recant!”) Fourth, Germans are an intellectual and rational people, and assumed that as communism grew religion would die out of its own accord, essentially losing in the arena of ideology and culture.

Whoops. In any event, and regardless of what has happened to German religion after — capitalism often seems a better destroyer of faith than communism — the churches deserve credit for providing the space that birthed the death of oppression.

Watch The Church and the Fall of the Wall on PBS. See more from Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly.

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