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Religion & Liberty: Volume 29, Number 1

Don’t export Germany’s ‘church tax’ to Africa

    The archbishop of Kampala believes that churches should not have to depend on the generosity of their members; instead the government should fund his congregations.

    Archbishop Cyprian Kizito Lwanga has called on the government of Uganda to institute a compulsory “church tax,” modeled on the German system. “Catholics just pick whatever they get from their pockets and give it, but the tithe the Bible talks about means that you pay 10 percent of your monthly salary,” he said. And he wants the state to rectify this.

    Under the German system, government officials deduct a tax from all registered members of religious communities, regardless of whether they attend services. This revenue funds religious leaders and institutions.

    But this arrangement cannot be justified morally or biblically. While the majority of Uganda’s population – an estimated 85 percent – is Christian, this is no reason for the church to become another taxpayer-funded entity. Even God did not make payment of a tithe compulsory. The Apostle Paul instructed believers, “Each of you should give what you have decided in your heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver” (II Corinthians 9:7).

    If this apostolic exhortation is not enough reason to convince the archbishop, he may want to dwell on the policy’s likely consequences.

    Archbishop Lwanga may be tempted to believe that state deductions will mean that churches will receive their funding in predictable government allotments. But people always react to incentives. Any tax based on voluntary self-identification tempts the faithful to opt out and declare themselves agnostics.

    The remaining members will assume that the church has all its needs met and will have little impetus to make free-will donations or do pro bono work for the church. If something (say, bureaucratic corruption) keeps some churches from being adequately funded, its clergy will find themselves with no resources.

    The fact that this proposal comes from an authority like Archbishop Lwanga makes it more worrisome. His involvement would do little more than give President Yoweri Museveni’s authoritarian government cover to meddle in church affairs.

    the government needs to start treating everyone as equals – not taking their money in the name of God.

    A church tax funding mechanism gives government officials unwelcome power over the proclamation of the Gospel. Consider that President Museveni has taxed the use of social media to stamp out what he has classified as “gossip.” The government could as easily withhold funds from churches spreading any message not favored by the current administration.

    All this assumes that the churches receive the full amount of the taxes raised. Politicians around the world find raiding every available revenue source for their own purposes irresistible.

    That raises another potentially harmful policy promoted by some in response to government subsidies to the church: taxing churches. Already, a groundswell of supporters argue that churches should be taxed, because some churches have as much revenue, or more, than some private corporations. Credible reports of mismanagement of church funds only add fuel to this fire. Even if claims of financial irresponsibility are true, the proposed tax system will not end the problem but only create an unnecessary financial burden on innocent church members.

    The idea that expanding the government’s tax base would benefit the economy in the long run is wrong. In fact, the more a government taxes its people, the less they can afford basic needs. This is one reason economies remain stagnant, especially as Ugandan families already struggle to provide education, healthcare, even food for their children.

    Humanitarian and social services provided by non-governmental organizations have prevented the poverty rate from triggering the same level of social disintegration in Uganda as it has in neighboring nations. At the center of this effort, as one might predict, is the church. As with their counterparts in most of sub-Saharan Africa, Ugandan churches provide better education than the alternatives, and they teach social responsibility and inclusivity better than the government. Unlike the brutal regime of Yoweri Museveni, which is guilty of creating social division and disregarding his citizens’ fundamental human dignity, the church has remained at the heart of everything good in Uganda.

    The twin proposals of taxing or funding churches would only deprive people of their right to peaceful association. With Uganda already dealing with cases of religious intolerance and extremism, the government needs to start treating everyone as equals – not taking their money in the name of God.

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    Ibrahim Anoba is the editor of AfricanLiberty. org. He is an expert in the African political economy, with a deep interest in African philosophy and history. You can follow his tweets on Africa at @Ibrahim_Anoba.