Church Tax

If Jesus Understood the Separation Between Church and State, the German State Should, Too

Bistum Trier erwartet erneut Einbruch bei Kirchensteuer
Churches in Germany have come under attack for their use of tax revenue. Source DPA
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    Germany is one of the few countries in Europe – and the world – to impose a church tax.

  • Facts

    Facts

    • The government collects the taxes, and people can deduct as special expenses the church levies they pay.
    • The government also finances religious communities through other direct and indirect contributions.
    • Tax revenues have increased in recent years due to an economic upsurge, even though churches are having increasing problems convincing members to continue paying them.
  • Audio

    Audio

  • Pdf

Jesus already had clear ideas about a sharp separation between church and state – at least when it comes to finances. “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s,” he is quoted as saying in the Gospel of Mark.

Some 2,000 years later, Germany is still looking for such a distinct separation. Unlike in the United States, where the separation of church and state is guaranteed by the Constitution, Germany mixes the two. Christian holidays are national holidays with mandated work closures. Religious institutions are supported by a so-called religion or church tax, which is paid by those who declare their religious affiliation to local authorities where they live.

Today, the state collects the church tax, and taxpayers can even deduct the church taxes they pay as special expenses. At the same time, the state funds religious communities year after year through various direct and indirect contributions in a high, nine-figure sum; these payments, however, have no central, transparent listing anywhere.

This chaotic financial relationship, which has proliferated over the years, needs to be examined, uncluttered and reordered. Also, there should be no taboos about questioning whether the state should even be collecting church taxes.

Over the long term, compulsory state collection of contributions cannot be a sustainable model, even for the churches.

Certainly, in the short run, neither the Protestant nor Catholic churches can do without the income from the church tax. For the Protestant church, this item on the balance sheet constitutes half its budget; for the Catholic church, the percentage is even higher depending on the particular diocese. But the fact that the church has become quite comfortable with the compulsory levy cannot serve as an argument for perpetuating it in all eternity. In most other countries, the church survives even without an official tax. That ought to be possible in wealthy Germany as well.

Over the long term, compulsory state collection of contributions cannot be a sustainable model, even for the churches. The tax revenues, which continue to increase due to the economic upsurge, conceal the fact that churches are having increasing problems convincing their members to continue paying them.

Whatever organization is compelled to convince its members to make a voluntary contribution must enter into dialogue with them and must be completely open about its finances and how it uses the money. It should also use this opportunity to publicize and promote its counseling and charitable activities. The alternative could be empty churches.

Florian Kolf is managing editor. He can be contacted at:  kolf@handelsblatt.com

We hope you enjoyed this article

Make sure to sign up for our free newsletters too!