I've been thinking of posting this for a while. Now seems a good time.
We often overlook the incredibly important part churches play in our society; that they are around doesn't just benefit those directly involved in them, or who receive their help and charity; that churches have played the role they play – that they have done their small bit to diminish the effects of grinding poverty – that they have pushed and prodded society and the government to be more compassionate – is of substantial benefit to society as a whole.
And it just doesn't seem fair that we all benefit from their existence, but don't all contribute to them. The freeloaders in society – most of us, I fear – gain these substantial benefits but offer no assistance: I wonder if it isn't time for a little more universality. Given the role they play, why aren't all required to play their part?
It sounds outlandish, but it would hardly be a new – a number of European states have state churches – section 4 of the Danish Constitution makes that pretty clear:
The Evangelical Lutheran Church shall be the Established Church of Denmark, and as such shall be supported by the State.
Indeed, many European countries have Church Taxes. In Iceland, ministers of the state Lutheran Church are government employees, and all citizens pay a few hundred dollars a year in church and cemetery taxes, but the State has taken the sensible step of allowing people to choose to not fund the state church, but some other recognised church or religious organisation (or even the University of Iceland) instead. This is yet a further sensible mechanism to ensure that freedom of conscience and freedom of association are maintained. Those who strongly object to joining the state church can go through the process and opt out.
Now all members would be required to contribute – but it wouldn't even have to be nearly as much as a tithe, because churches would have many more members than they do now overheads would come down. Think of all the wonderful extra things churches could do with universal membership! With a much greater (i.e. any) use of volunteer labour, money spent on administration in government provision of welfare could substantially decrease. Through these mechanisms additional state assistance could be provided to ensure even fewer needy fall through the cracks. Our churches could expand their outreach further into the community – they wouldn't replace government-provided welfare, but could supplement it, operating from within communities, rather than imposing on them from outside.
Those who fully opt out obviously shouldn't get their money back – that wouldn't be fair – but if their deeply-held philosophical objection can be maintained, there seems no reason why their funding can't bypass the churches and go directly to the causes the churches support.
And the others – those who don't fundamentally object to belonging, but just aren't particularly enthused about taking part – won't have to. This isn't state-mandated faith – that would be unconscionable – just universal membership of churches. Their membership enables churches to continue – and expand – their good works, and to advocate for the interests of their members, but doesn't require anything like active participation. The whole of society benefits and no-one is forced into anything they'd disagree with. A real win-win.
Europe has lead the way. All it takes is a little imagination.
p.s. A follow-up piece will appear later today or some time tomorrow morning.