April 2, 2013 2:58PM

Art, Religion, and Taxpayer Funding

In Germany enrolled members of a church must pay a tax for the support of the church. I’m sure a lot of American churches would like to have such a revenue source. How’s it working out in Germany? Well, Marketplace radio reports:

Christians — Protestants and Catholics combined — are leaving their churches at a rate of about 300,000 people a year.

No doubt tax avoidance isn’t the only reason for that. But really, if you simply become less interested in religion, why bother to formally renounce your membership? The tax saving is an obvious reason. Marketplace’s John Laurenson talks to one ex‐​church member:

Stefan, though, no longer pays the church tax that used to gobble up four percent of his salary.

Was it really the money, I ask. Or was it loss of faith? No, he says, it was the money.

Back in April 2000 I attended a lecture at the Smithsonian Institution by Richard Dawkins. Afterward I wrote this to him:

I was struck by your answer to one question. A member of the audience asked why the United States has a stronger movement for religious fundamentalism than other countries even though it has separation of church and state. You replied that you didn’t know; it might be just a coincidence. I was surprised that you didn’t offer what I think is the clear “Darwinian” answer: competition makes individuals and enterprises stronger, while subsidies and protection make them weaker. As I wrote in Libertarianism: A Primer, “businesses coddled behind subsidies and tariffs will be weak and uncompetitive, and so will churches, synagogues, mosques, and temples. Religions that are protected from political interference but are otherwise on their own are likely to be stronger and more vigorous than a church that draws its support from government.”

And indeed scholars of religion often comment that American churches tend to be more vibrant and more robust than European churches, with far more Americans actually in church on Sunday morning than Europeans. Perhaps a guaranteed source of income isn’t all that helpful in the long run.

I was particularly amused by this comment in the Marketplace report, from a businessman who

travels quite a bit in the U.S. and doesn’t much like what he’s seen of the way they fund churches there.

In the States you see churches that sometimes “look a little like they have too much of a consumer orientation,” says Wendland. “Where they play rock music and do all sorts of crazy stuff. I have nothing against rock music but I would (prefer) a church that is doing the right thing for the community and for God but not do stuff to attract a sort of clientele.”

It strikes me that that’s just the argument made on behalf of tax funding for the arts. We have more arts in America than in any country in history. But much of it is labeled “entertainment” and disdained by those who “have nothing against rock music but would prefer arts organizations that are doing the right for the community” rather than having “too much of a consumer orientation.”

Which is why my argument that “Because art is just as spiritual, just as meaningful, just as powerful as religion, it is time to grant art the same independence and respect that religion has. It is time to establish the separation of art and state” seems entirely on point here.