“I’m not an idiot”, so said Michael Jensen in an interview with Peter FitzSimons for Sunday’s Sydney Morning Herald.
FitzSimons opening barrage on Jensen was to portray Christianity in his typically parodic manner, as though Christians are a bunch of uneducated, antiscientific, and annoying cluster of flies. Hence, Michael’s initial response. Although to be fair, apart from the opening line to Jensen, the article is pretty decent and Fitz does a good job in questioning both Fiona Patton and Michael Jensen. His topics were the Lord’s Prayer and churches’ tax exemption status.
For those who don’t know of Fiona Patten, she is a member of the Legislative Council in the Victorian Parliament. Her party, Reason Party, was formally called the Sex Party. Unsurprisingly, Patten is a passionate advocate for progressive sex ideology. Michael Jensen on the other hand is Senior Pastor at St Mark’s Darling Point in Sydney and holds a PhD from Oxford University.
On the topic of the Lord’s prayer, Michael Jensen is typically Christian as he sees both pros and cons with Parliament reciting the Lord’s Prayer. On the issue of tax exemption rules, Jensen explains,
“the first thing to say is that Jesus told us to pay taxes and churches should too, on [straight-out businesses they run]. But churches as places of worship come under the charity law as a community group and for the purposes of taxation don’t have special privileges that other community groups don’t have. So sports, for example, don’t pay tax because they are a community group, as are trade unions, things like Men’s Shed, the CWA and indeed political parties. So this is not a special provision just for churches. And when it comes to churches, the view is that money put in the plate has already been taxed – it is people’s after-tax dollars – and so doesn’t need to be further taxed, just as when people donate to community groups.”
“Tax law needs supervision, needs compliance and needs data to be administered properly. Most of the long-established churches like ours have an accumulated wealth, particularly through property, because of our longevity in Australia – and most of our buildings are held in a trust to support the purposes for which the organisation exists, which is not for making profit. So we’re not remotely a business in that sense.”
Jensen is correct. I acknowledge that I’m biased, but it does not require a PhD from Oxford to realise that Jensen’s explanation is reasoned and grounded in what actually happens in churches across Australia and how their financial paradigm fits comfortably within the ACNC (Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission). Of course, where churches engage in business enterprises they rightly follow the law and pay their taxes. If and when there are examples of churches failing to comply, it is appropriate for authorities to investigate.
Fiona Patten holds a very different view from Michael Jensen. In this interview, she offers a clear explanation as to why she believes churches should be taxed: she doesn’t like them.
“If you are talking about religious charities, providing shelter for the homeless, food for the hungry – what we in society consider real charity – I absolutely think those genuine charities should be tax-exempt, and I totally support that. But the problem is the tax exemption the law provides for “the advancement of religion”. That used to be regarded as being for the public benefit but fewer people than ever think that. And why should you get a tax break for promoting a superstition?”
First of all, what Patten describes as ‘real charity’ is in error. The ACNC includes all kinds of organisations, including, community sporting clubs, unions, political parties, Rotary and Lions, and more. Is Fiona Patten suggesting that all these should have their tax exemption rescinded because they are not involved in giving food to the hungry?
If you look at Patten’s words, her position is hardly an argument, but it is a reason of sorts. She doesn’t like religion, therefore churches should lose their tax exemption status. Now, there are many charitable organisations that I don’t particularly like or attach much value to. I don’t enjoy swimming or basketball, but should these sporting clubs lose their not-for-profit status because I personally don’t receive benefit? Can I not admit what is true, and that is, that other people find value in these community organisations even if I don’t? But of course, this is the issue: Christianity is not only viewed as irrelevant, but it is also immoral and dangerous. Or at least, that’s the narrative being preached around the country from university campuses to school classrooms and newspaper opinion pieces.
In this interview, Michael Jensen is simply stating facts, as the Federal Minister for Charities, Andrew Leigh, confirmed. And yet, social media yesterday turned on industrial-sized heaters, blowing angry and distasteful commentary.
John Dickson said,
“The Fitz article is good. The responses demonstrate a key point in our debate about taxing churches as businesses. Those who oppose church tax exemptions do so (almost invariable) because they despise – ‘bigoted’ ‘stupid’ ‘paedophilic’ ‘nonsense’ ‘fairytale’ – religion!”
A few hours later John tweeted further,
“The level of anti-religion argument in this country is very poor. It is emotion and distaste all the way down. Bring back the old atheists, I say!”
Over at the land of twits I offered a simple affirmation of Michael Jensen’s answers, and it didn’t take long for Fitz’s followers to unload. It’s not as though people offered rebuttal as such, it was more akin to pointing a flamethrower at anyone standing with Jensen.
“I just read this, all nonsense. You talk about dependence on God, which one, Thor, Odin? Get this nonsense out of our govt.”
“What benefits did christianity bring again? Ignorant belief in imaginary gods used as an excuse for control of others, forced unwilling pregnancies on women, looked away from paedophilia & domestic violence, great examples of man’s evil though.”
“Seriously, can’t you do better than that?
“Let’s reverse it – You just love religion. That’s the only real reason you have for defending tax breaks for religion.
See how facile that is?”
And then this doozy for a happily married man of 22+ years…
“You virgin Murray!”
I can receive a lot worse than these contributions, but the examples I’ve cited are nonetheless telling. These comments and countless more like them simply rehash Patten’s view: ‘I don’t like religion, therefore we should remove their tax exemption.’
It’s a sad state of affairs but this is the calibre of what’s becoming normalised public scrutiny and debate today. Rather than weighing on facts and reason and listening carefully to the other, debate is shut down by the loudest mob. They don’t need to rely on evidence or rationality, pushing people into silence is effective. And it’s proving effective because Christianity is no longer seen as stupid, it is an evil that requires intervention. Of course, Christianity and evil are diametrically opposed, but this is not how Aussies are taught to view Christianity any longer.
Yes, Christians are at times obnoxious and give off an unpleasant smell. More often, Australians assume to be true what they hear repeated often enough and they believe what they are taught, and what we are taught is that Christianity is bad for you. Hillsong was used as an example by both Patten and people on social media. Hillsong is a popular target, and for some reason, but 99.9% of churches are not Hillsong, and judging the whole on the basis of that single example is superficial at best, and fallacious at worst.
It’s important for Christians to come to terms with how the fabric of education and belief has shifted in Western countries like Australia. The Christian message, and therefore Churches, is a social toxin that requires social, political, and even legal action to minimise its spread. It is therefore only natural for people to believe churches don’t deserve their tax exemption status. After all, if Christianity is bad for you, why should the Government provide tax exemptions?
There are people who are hurt by religion. There are people who hate religion, by which they usually mean Christianity. There are many people who simply do not understand Christianity. Michael Jensen has served us well.
Yesterday’s pushback on Jensen reminds me how Churches have more work to do to correct these misnomers about churches and money, and most importantly about the nature and purpose of the local church. Of course, churches can preach and live as faithfully to Jesus as possible and still face wild outrage and bitterness, but let’s not be too quick to throw out all opposition into the basket named, ‘hatred’. One of the trends we are seeing is growing ignorance of what Christianity is about and for that, we can hardly blame the average Aussie. To be sure, our cultural elites must take some responsibility as they distort Christianity in the ploy to remove her influence from society. Churches shoulder greater responsibility for the confusion that exists in our broader society. Why? Gospel clarity and conviction and teaching and life are often missing from our churches. The beauty and power of the Christian message is often defused by poorly trained pastors or through religious Benedict Arnolds.
I happen to agree with Fiona Patten in that some religions are little more than superstition, but others are not. Christianity is necessarily and integrally grounded in history and reality. The claims of Jesus Christ are consequential because they are rooted in real events and real people and for a real world. Far from superstition, Christianity provides the very ideas that have converged to build the very best of Australian society and the building blocks necessary for democratic liberalism and social pluralism: the equality and dignity of all human beings, the art of persuasion not coercion, belief in the rule of law, and so on.
Christians have a better story. It’s not a story that Christians are somehow better than others (for we are not), but a living example that shows how crucified and now living Christ is better. The Federal Minister for Charities, Andrew Leigh, is an atheist and yet recognises the ways in which belief in God and joining a religious community changes peoples lives for the better, creating greater generosity and servanthood and helping out for the good of others (cf Leigh’s interview with John Dickson).
While fewer Australians are formally identifying with religion, the fact is that the advancement of religion remains hugely important to millions of Australians. More so, at a time when Australia is experiencing less social cohesion and staggering levels of loneliness and people living without hope, there is an argument for churches having an even greater role and responsibility in bringing people together. Removing the tax status of churches is not only irrational, but Australian society will also be worse off. Churches are communities where people come and share life together and find the answers to life’s greatest questions. These are communities where people enormous amount of time and energy to loving others and sacrificially giving. These are voluntary associations where people gather to learn and discover the greatest message the world has ever known. Yes, it requires money for the upkeep of buildings and utilities and ministries. The social capital for broader Australian society is huge, and dare I say it, the implications are of eternal nature.
Disagree with Christianity by all means. Let us listen and argue well and disagree well, but removing churches’ tax exemptions will achieve little more than shooting ourselves in the head and expecting a good outcome to follow.