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Many German Christians quit church to avoid tax

Worshipers attend a vesper service held by Pope Benedict XVI at the pilgrimage chapel in Etzelsbach, eastern Germany, on September 23, 2011, the second day of the Pontiff's first state visit to his native Germany.

A message for the churches?

In his chic, modern apartment in the former East Berlin, Stefan Faulstroh wants to know what tea I want so he can select the appropriate water temperature. He’s an engineer. You wouldn’t have guessed. Makes trains. I wouldn’t want to be so crass as to ask how much he earns but judging by the look of his place, it’s quite a lot. 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. “So now do you sometimes sneak into church nevertheless? At Christmas maybe, or Easter?” Yes, he says, as a matter of fact he does. “Does he feel guilty?” He puts the question for me. “Not really.” But sometimes he wonders if he shouldn’t go back and become a church member again. “Obviously, when you die, no priest is going to come to your funeral so that’s a downside but that’s a few years from now.”

Tall, impressively bald and dressed in a striking tweed suit he says he bought in a church bazaar, Pastor Johann Hinrich Claussen, Dean of the Hamburg region, says he keeps an eye out for tax dodgers. Especially wealthy tax dodgers. And gives me a piercing look as if I might be one myself.

The figures, he agrees, are worrying. Christians -- Protestants and Catholics combined -- are leaving their churches at a rate of about 300,000 people a year. That is a shame in itself but it also means a drop in income. So his church is trying to diversify its revenues in order to keep maintaining its churches and paying its ministers, deacons and so on. But, he says, Germany should keep its church tax.

“Social-Democrats and Liberals invented this tax a hundred years ago in order to make the people pay for their church, not only the patrons or the king or the Kaiser,” he says. “It was invented to democratize the church. That’s still an old and I think good idea.”

“Taxes are never fair,” he tells me. “Nobody who pays them thinks they are in any case. But at least this tax takes more from people who earn more and less from people who earn less and nothing from people who earn nothing.”

But what to do when those who can pay, don’t? Last year, Germany’s Catholic Bishops’ issued an uncompromising edict. A member who refuses to pay taxes will no longer be allowed to receive communion or make confession, to serve as godparents or to hold any office in the church, it read. Those who leave can also be refused a Christian burial, unless they “give some sign of repentance.”

The Protestants are more accommodating. As Wolfgang Georgsdorf, a lapsed Protestant and non-taxpayer, testifies.

When his mother died, he wanted the pastor who had been his and his brother’s religious teacher to come and hold a service. He admitted his mother hadn’t been in the Protestant Church for years. The pastor thought about it a bit. Then said that he thought she’d quit because of the money. That she couldn’t afford it. That he understood. He held the service.

There are others who, when it’s time to meet their maker, will be able to stretch out in their coffins with great moral ease.

Sebastien Wendland, for example. Who says he’s happy to pay the tax even though he’s not much of a church-goer. He likes what the church does. He thinks its schools and kindergartens and hospitals and so on provide an alternative to the State sector that’s good for democracy.

As a marketing director for a beer company, he 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.”

A message for the churches?

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The tax requires Catholics, Protestants, and Jews to declare their religious status and pay a tax. Given the tragic circumstances of German history in the mid-twentieth century, I would think the Germans of all people would find a religion tax to be a disgusting policy. Think about it: they're still requiring Jews in Germany to register with the state. Really?

You need a bit more work on that issue than just interview a few people. Besides the already pointed out mistake re tax rate, you forgot that in Germany as every else in the world there is increasing diversification. As the traditional churches are losing, new ones -often modelled after the American different denomination - have emerged and have received rapidly increasing members, who pay not to the State but to their Church Community.

The report was a bit misleading in one detail: the tax rate. The report states that the engineer pays "four percent of his salary" as church tax. While that statement is theoretically possible, it seems improbable for someone who earns "quite a lot", as the church tax is imposed at a rate that is calculated as 8% (9% in a few states) of a taxpayer's total tax liability, not of the taxpayer's taxable income.
Is this a "horrible" idea? Hardly, for a variety of reasons. But our knee-jerk U.S.-American "not invented here" mindset often leads some to that conclusion . . .

Is it really that different from offering tax deductions for donations to a religious institution?

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