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Europeans will pay church tax, won’t attend church

NASHVILLE (BP) — Despite Europe’s increasing secularization, most residents of six European countries studied by the Pew Research Center continue to pay a tax designated for support of religious organizations — though they are permitted to opt out.

At least 68 percent of taxpayers pay the traditional church tax in every country featured in the study, amounting to billions of euros annually, Pew reported April 30. Yet at least 70 percent of residents in each country said they attend worship services less frequently than once per month, if at all.

“Support for state church taxation is more often based upon a pragmatic approach than from a religious conviction,” said Lloyd Harsch, professor of church history and Baptist studies at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. “Many Europeans, including secularists, view churches, or at least church buildings, as preserving their culture, history and art, and for this reason are willing to pay the church tax. It preserves the past and is good for tourism.

“In addition, those who pay the tax are allowed to be buried in the church cemetery, which spares family members a costly search for a burial plot upon one’s death,” Harsch said.

Church and state have been linked in much of Europe since the fourth century. The church tax system dates back to the 18th and 19th centuries, Pew stated, and continues the European tradition of governments helping to fund state churches.

In the six countries studied — Denmark, Austria, Switzerland, Germany, Finland and Sweden — there is a mandatory tax on members of all state-sponsored Christian denominations, Pew stated, and in some cases members of state-sponsored non-Christian religious groups.

Historically, Baptists have opposed state-sponsored religion, including church tax systems.

In each of the six countries studied, no more than a fifth of residents said they used to pay the church tax but have stopped, Pew reported. The percentage ranges from 20 percent in Finland down to 8 percent in Switzerland.

Some residents have never paid the church tax, ranging from 18 percent in Germany to 8 percent in Finland.

Among those who pay the church tax, most said they are not too likely or not likely at all to opt out of paying in the future. A full 88 percent of Danish payers said they are not likely to opt out of the church tax in the future. The lowest percentage occurred in Switzerland, where just 72 percent said they are not likely to stop paying.

“Some Europeans are leaving the church tax system,” Pew stated, “but there does not appear to be a mass exodus.”

Large majorities of self-described Christians pay the tax in all six countries, including 95 percent in Austria, Pew reported. The majority of nonpayers in each country are religiously unaffiliated, including a high of 71 percent in Switzerland.

Yet many of the religiously unaffiliated pay the church tax as well. In Sweden, 32 percent of payers are religiously unaffiliated, along with 22 percent in Denmark.

In all six countries, a key factor motivating payment of the church tax appeared to be “positive feelings about the impact of churches on society,” Pew stated.

“Many self-reported payers said that churches and other religious institutions strengthen morality, bring people together and help the poor,” Pew stated. “In most countries surveyed, fewer former church tax payers hold these views. Moreover, current taxpayers are less likely than former taxpayers to say that religion should be kept separate from government policies.”

The survey was conducted by telephone in 2017, Pew reported.