Should Tax Money Go to Religious Groups?

[This is a lightly edited version of a post that first appeared on the “Context with Lorna Dueck” website.]

One hears murmurs, whisperings, and hints that the Trudeau government is considering scaling back, or even eliminating, tax support for religious organizations in Canada.

The code language here is “modernizing,” as in “modernizing the tax code.” The modernity that is implied here is a very particular kind of modernity, that of the French Revolution and, indeed, of the Quiet Revolution two centuries later. “Modern” in this parlance means “secularist,” which means “emptied of religion.”

There’s a fair question at stake: Why should Canadian governments—federal, provincial, or municipal—give financial support to religious organizations? Whether the support comes in tax breaks, zoning allowances, partnerships, or outright grants, does any of it make sense any longer in a post-Christian, pluralistic Canada?

Two things need to be said on behalf of continuing such support, and then at least one more.

First, religious groups provide many social services gratis to their communities.

Someone has a new baby? Religious groups provide meals, run errands, and help with childcare for frazzled new parents.

Someone’s getting married? Religious groups provide celebrations, yes, so that everyone feels honoured—not just those who can afford to fête themselves. But they also provide food, household items, and time-honoured wisdom to help give new unions a good start.

Someone’s lost a loved one? Religious groups gather around to mourn, to console, to provide.

Beyond rites of passage, moreover, religious groups provide considerable social capital. They provide information centres and friendship networks for lonely and disoriented newcomers. They constitute safe meeting places for singles looking for mates. They offer companionship and recreation for the unemployed or retired. And they educate people in life skills, from parenting teenagers to coping with divorce to financial planning.

Beyond community, furthermore, religious groups mobilize volunteers in a bewildering range of publicly helpful activities: sponsoring blood drives, cleaning up beaches and roadsides, running daycares and summer camps—and all of this before we even start talking about charities, such as shelters, food banks, educational services, AA meetings, and more.

Indeed, on the sheerly pragmatic level, many religious groups stretch tax dollars a long way by adding many of their own. A small government grant to a soup kitchen can make the difference between it surviving or stopping—but the main funding and the main volunteer work are rendered by religious people freely contributing their charity to the needy. Religious schools likewise are run at a fraction of the cost to the taxpayer of public schools because of the contributions of religious supporters and tuition paid by motivated parents.

Second (and this point is often overlooked), religious groups provide places and occasions for people to stop, think, and talk about the Big Questions. Where else in our society do people get to remove their noses from the grindstone, step off the treadmill, escape the rat race, and consider, without apology or irony, the meaning of life?

Book clubs? Maybe. Universities? If you take the right courses….

Bars? Well, yes, bars. But perhaps the quality of reflection isn’t quite adequate to the subject matter in such conditions.

Religious groups, however, are all about these issues. What is the true nature of things? What constitutes the well-lived life? What are the grounds for morality, and what does it mean to be truly good? What is it all about, really?

Surely the public good is advanced by making sure that there are institutions—and vital, well-funded institutions—in which such conversation takes place in communities of respect, wisdom, and freedom.

And that last phrase brings me to my additional point: Not all religious groups are, in fact, characterized by respect and freedom. Not all of them do advance the public good in any discernible way. Some, in fact, are utterly inward and publicly useless. And a few are positively dangerous.

So not all religious groups deserve tax support, that’s for sure. But many, even most, clearly do. Here’s hoping our Canadian governments can see past the sensational scandals to the quiet, vital work religious groups are doing, as they have been doing faithfully since human beings first came to this land.

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