It has long been believed that politics and religion should be separated in democratic nations. From countries in the west, like the United States, where Thomas Jefferson was a propagator of state and religion separation, to back home, where leaders like Gandhi hoped for a state separated from religion, the idea of state-religion autonomy is believed to be the ideal situation. However, as Gandhi also said, it would be impossible for some level of religion not interfering with politics.
A secular nation treats all faiths equally, that is, rewards all citizens with the same rights regardless of religion. In recent years though, there has been a lot of debate whether the ideology of secularism is held up. India, a Hindu majority, has always been scrutinized for its ability to uphold secular values, considering various governments have enacted inherently anti-secular policies.
In various Western countries as well, church and state separation has reduced. This begs the question, should governments be giving benefits to religious institutions? Before we get to that point though, what services does the government currently provide to religious institutions? In India, for example, according to the Income Tax Act of 1961, religious institutions are considered non-profit organizations and thereby don’t have any obligation to pay taxes.
But is that the case? This idea has become less clear as time has passed. What are the motivations of those running religious institutions? I believe they aren’t as pure as they used to be but have an inherent money-making agenda. In an ideal case, this should remove the non-profit tag these religious institutions hold, and they should no longer have complete tax exemptions.
But this creates another problem. The primary motivation of governments around the world to give tax breaks to religious institutions is to try their best to keep religious institutions away from achieving any level of governing power. But I believe these tax exemptions don’t aid that. There are many institutions, businesses, etc. that are not tax exempted while also having no governing power. This dismantles both motivations of the government to provide tax exemptions or other benefits to religious institutions.
But do governments attain a higher moral ground by providing these benefits? With the indirect funding of religious institutions, is the government funding an institution that is believed to inherently help people? Institutions such as Gurudwaras provide food to those who need it, so is the government doing good things by assisting these institutions? Technically yes, but actually no. The government’s responsibility is to provide these services to citizens directly, and providing benefits to any institution takes away some possibility of doing so.
Essentially, if the government took taxes from these very religious institutions, it could increase government expenditure and provide essential goods and services to its citizens. So no, the government does not attain a moral high ground by doing so.
In conclusion, governments should not give special treatment to religious institutions. Whatever positives these benefits provide are far outweighed by the negatives. This holds on a legal, ethical, and practical level. The founding fathers of the democratic world were correct in hoping for religion-state autonomy. But with governments with various agendas coming to power today, one can only hope for this change to be made.