Do Unto Others: How To Build Obscene Wealth, Avoid Tax And Still Praise God

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For three long years the Royal Commission into Child Sexual Abuse heard tragic testimony from thousands of victims of abuse perpetrated by prestigious religious institutions. And there seems no end – whether to the depths of child exploitation, to inaction by churches for preventative solutions, or to delays in compensating their victims.

While child abuse has been the criminal underbelly of Christianity – most recently exposed – there is another epidemic on which all churches have remained silent, and equally miasmic with indifference.

Wealth abuse is a global phenomenon, evident long before globalisation. It’s become a crisis in every nation as the rich become even more obscenely rich, while a burgeoning underclass struggle for survival.

A miniscule 0.1 per cent of America’s most wealthy own almost as much as the bottom 90 per cent – this from presidential candidate Bernie Sanders. It’s an exponential wealth gap that’s exploded in all nations since the rich/poor chasm of the Industrial Revolution, and widened further during the Great Depression.

The churches say and do little other than tut-tut and hand-wring at periodic conventions, in obscure reports on social deprivation, or with 30-second news grabs to show that they “care“. They know exactly that behind the illusion and thin veneer of widespread prosperity the non-rich are simply not coping.

US presidential candidate Bernie Sanders. (IMAGE: Phil Roeder, Flickr)
US presidential candidate Bernie Sanders. (IMAGE: Phil Roeder, Flickr)

True, the pursuit and hoarding of wealth is as old as time. But historically, societies that became top heavy with wealth – in the hands of too few – fell prey to rebellion.

One of the most spectacular was the Fall of Rome, but France and Russia are two classic examples of popular revolution. It nearly happened in Britain in the depression when unemployment hit 30 per cent, and topping 70 per cent in parts of Wales and Northern England.

But poverty has always been the corner stone for religion. The influence and domination by which all churches primarily flourish is impoverished societies, where education and social opportunity are minimal. 90 per cent of Catholics are poor. It is the theme of a recent book, ‘Sacred and Secular: Religion and Politics Worldwide’.

It’s illustrated, too, by one well-known quote from Christopher Hitchens about Mother Teresa, when he said; “Mother Teresa was not a friend of the poor. She was a friend of poverty. She said that suffering was a gift from God.” And it’s in this mindset that retreat into supernatural belief seems to become the only option.

Christians have laid claim to the economically dispossessed from the very outset. Matthew 19:24 makes it clear: “Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”

So where is the religious muscle-flexing to condemn this shameful wealth gap that exists? Where is the political influence and hard-hitting media campaigns the churches unleashed when calling for Religious Freedom, or their demands for exemptions to anti-discrimination laws to challenge gay marriage, or their frontal assaults on the Safe Schools program?

Instead, Christianity influences the creation of wealth and maintains its symbiotic rapport with governments and the social elite who perpetuate capital inequity. Indeed, it was Calvinism that eased biblical restrictions on avarice and usury, paving the way for the full development and exploitation of laissez-fair capitalism.

Now, while experiencing rapid congregational decline, the numerically small church hierarchies somehow retain a cultural and political dominance. They maintain the presence of being spiritually elitist and eschew all scientific evidence that undermines their biblical foundations.

Cardinal George Pell.
Cardinal George Pell.

This, itself, breeds ignorance among their diminishing flock. And they continue to champion and personify Christianity’s privileged elite, and reinforce an archaic ‘class structure’ through their penchant for pomp and ceremony.

Religion remains firmly anchored in its social orthodoxy (anti-gay, anti-voluntary euthanasia, et al), it is staunchly conservative on political and economic policy, and it has an overall callous insensitivity. That is typified by an embedded ‘Mother Teresa’ mindset to poverty, and a Cardinal Pell-like view of child abuse.

Christianity’s coddled leadership continues to defy the march of progress. They are a privileged group of men with miniscule congregational support – just 8 per cent of the public go to church. That includes all religions.

All these characteristics are well covered in two meticulous works by Professor Marion Maddox which blows the lid off Christianity, in its current incarnation.

One is, ‘God Under Howard; the rise of the religious right in Australia’, and the other, ‘Taking God to School; the end of Australia’s egalitarian education?‘ A bold expose of Christian politics, economics and education by someone who is a practicing Christian.

Historically, this all adds up to Christianity being a major player in the environment of wealth escalation, and by direct association, with social and economic inequality.

No doubt some of their charities do good work but the very essence of being a religious charity is to actively engage in the “advancement of religion”.

Government subsidies, initialed by John Howard, led to church domination of the welfare and employment sectors, as well as lucrative businesses in private education, private health and private aged care. In none of these is there any legal protection for their captive clientele to be shielded from predatory Christianity.

And while 37 per cent of charities are religious, the remaining 63 per cent are primarily secular – doing equally good work on a broad swathe of humanitarian fronts but all without the need to tout supernatural beliefs.

But the churches have departed from the alleged teachings of Jesus – to give “succor and comfort” to the needy, without “counting the cost”. Throughout history they have indeed counted the staggering wealth pouring into their coffers. Despite all their unchristian denials, churches have immeasurable wealth in property, investments, businesses, gold, art work, precious gems and artifacts, and international currencies.

In 2014 faith groups collected a handsome $104b income, according to government’s own Australian Charities and Not-for-Profit Commission. And these religious charities are not required to submit detailed financial reports, so we can assume this is a conservative figure.

Conversely, religions are avoiding an estimated $31b in taxes across the full gamut of tax exemptions: income tax on businesses, GST, land taxes, council rates, payroll taxes, car registrations, the list is endless.

(IMAGE: paul bica, Flickr).
(IMAGE: paul bica, Flickr).

The analysis was completed by the Secular Party of Australia in 2008, and it can be safely assumed that over the past seven years that figure has not diminished in any way.

So, where is all this going?

In 2014 Australia’s GDP was US$1.45 trillion – that’s US dollars – and was ranked 12th on the IMF table of 189 countries. And despite the GFC, and recent falls in commodity prices, Australia remains one of the wealthiest nations in the world.

And, like the churches (over many centuries), Australia’s wealth has expanded exponentially, but primarily in the hands of society’s most privileged and already wealthy.

In 2015, the nation’s top 20 per cent of wealth-holders increased by 28 per cent, while, by comparison, the wealth of the bottom 20 per cent increased by just 3 per cent. A person in the top 20 per cent wealth-group has a staggering 70 times as much wealth as a person in the bottom 20 per cent; and the wealthiest 10 per cent own 45 per cent of all wealth.

These figures come from ACOSS in their 2015 report, ‘Inequality in Australia.’

So, where is the clamour from Christian churches to actually do something about the ever increasing wealth-gap problem? Where is the voice from those religious bodies that endorsed the ACOSS report – the Salvation Army, Anglicare Australia and St Vincent de Paul?

When will the Church hierarchies ever do more that offer muted and patronising double-speak? When will they openly challenge the federal government to act through their frequent national media campaigns? Will they ever use all their media connections to influence real change – the very same networks they use to shout down gay marriage, and a raft of contemporary social policy that offends their Christian beliefs?

Where is the church voice calling loudly not for cuts to education, health and welfare, but for increases in revenue through equitable taxation of the wealthy in negative gearing, on superannuation rorts for the rich, family trusts, and a swathe of tax loopholes for corporations and their mega-rich patrons?

These are all multi-billion dollar revenue streams which could build infrastructure and create ‘real’ jobs, better opportunities for the chronically under-employed, and genuine training for the army of unemployed youth who need tangible pathways to participate fully in this 12th richest country in the world.

Casual jobs now account for 35 per cent of the workforce, the largest on record, and the majority provide only sufficient hours to allow workers a meager existence. The unemployment rate is close to 13 per cent, including casual workers whose hours fall short of the minimum wage. A true figure is much higher still, when including all unemployed people who have dropped out of the labour market entirely.

(IMAGE: Jody Claborn, Flickr)
(IMAGE: Jody Claborn, Flickr)

To reverse this crisis of casualisation – and the economic insecurity of ’employment by yearly contract’ – a government with integrity would open new revenue streams. They are the traditional ‘sacred cows’ of the wealthy, mentioned above.

Without these untapped revenue sources there will be no stabilising of today’s wealth inequity, no national infrastructure funds to curb Australia’s slide into social and economic decline.

And a Death Tax would be an ideal addition to any plan to finally have the mega-rich make a contribution. It was even suggested last year by Malcolm Turnbull – to re-introduce a scheme abandoned in 1978. It’s been long overdue, given that Australia’s wealthiest fat-cats are the meanest in the world when it comes to philanthropy, according to the Arton Capital Philanthropy Report of 2015.

Or just pay tax! Put simply, tax minimisation is not only anti-social behavior, it’s a contrived rort on the low-paid who pay their full share.

Religion’s annual $31 billion in tax exemptions is another ancient contrivance that’s long overdue for a major overhaul – to have churches finally make a contribution to the nation’s coffers. Or do they just stand and watch as governments slash more from hospitals and public schools?

While Christianity originally preached the ideal, “render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s”, they continue to fight tooth and nail to retain their billion-dollar free ride at the tax-payer’s expense. It’s unconscionable, in this wholly secular society.

Malcolm Turnbull’s government faces a budget crisis in May. Wracked by indecision, they have swept ‘off the table’ a full gamut of taxation measures to off-set expenditure and the alarming fall in commodities.

But all the easy options have been discarded. And it’s incontrovertible that a Catholic Turnbull would simply run screaming from the remotest mention of “death and religion” paying its fair share of tax to his government.

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Brian Morris

As a journalist and PR well versed in secular politics, Sacred to Secular was inevitable. World travel shaped Brian’s interest in social justice — wealth, poverty and religion in many countries. His book is critically acclaimed, including from the Richard Dawkins Foundation. It’s an analysis of Christianity, its origins and the harm it does. It’s a call for Australia to become fully secular.

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