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The purple economy

By Alan Matheson - posted Monday, 7 July 2008

In 2004, the Vatican launched a global diplomatic campaign for the recognition of Christianphobia. The need for such a campaign, according to the sponsor of the UK Parliamentary debate on the issue, was, “the relentless assault on the nation’s much loved Christian heritage. It’s about how anti-Christian sentiment is increasing.” Not a day goes by in Australia, says a Christian leader, “where the faith is not being bashed, pilloried, mocked, attacked, and dragged into the mud”.

The church has persuaded itself, that not only is it losing its faithful by the pewful, but under attack by secular and atheistic forces, it is losing the support and protection of the State. In fact, this so called attack is an extremely effective strategy by the church, not only to divert attention from itself, but to strengthen the state’s support for the church.

In terms of the evangelistic mission of the church, the support from the state has never been greater. Australian churches in fact, have never had it so good.


At a time when the pew and the pulpit are emptying, the church at another level is booming. Never in Australian history, have so few Christians received so much recognition, protection and cash from taxpayers, ratepayers, corporations and governments. Never has there been a time, when the church has held and traded so much property,mananged such extensive investment portfolios and banks, and created such a diversity of profit making businesses.

Never before have there been so many exemptions for churches, everything from, “GST, income tax, fringe benefits tax, land tax, stamp duty, payroll tax, car registration, to property rates”.

It’s not then Christianphobia that’s the problem for the church, but the increasing taxpayer concern, frustration and anger, as to why they should continue to protect and further fund, not only the church’s preaching, but also its company profits.

The church gets away with this, because so little is known of the extent of the church’s wealth and whether or not it could be doing a whole lot more in paying its way. The churches, and its study centres, such as the Australian Centre for Christianity and Culture, show no interest in such transparency. The Australian Centre received a $5 million start up gift from the Federal Government, so its hesitancy is understandable!

Only journalists and the media provide the occasional glimpses:

  • a dossier was published on “Salvation Inc. the nation’s biggest and wealthiest charity” (The Australian, June 22, 2001);
  • in 2005, it was reported that the nation’s financial regulators were going after the church, “Watchdog to put bite on God’s banks”(The Australian, October 28, 2005); and more recently
  • Renton’s, “Taxpayers’ sacrifice to the churches”, filled in a few more gaps (The Age, May 6, 2008).

Probably the Business Review Weekly has provided the best monitoring and analysis of the church’s business dealings: “Charity Inc.” (March 24, 2005); “God’s Millionaires” (May 26, 2005); “God’s Business, taking advantage of lax taxation regulations” (June 29, 2006).

In short, the church appears more interested in value investing and minimum variance portfolios than up front transparency.

But up until now, there has been no overall analysis of the wealth of the church and its insatiable demand for even more of the taxpayer’s dollar. Wallace’s recent book, The Purple Economy Supernatural Charities, Tax and the State, is a must read for those concerned with the increasing state investment in the church. While the black economy is well known and illegal, the purple economy is largely unknown and legal.

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About the Author

Alan Matheson is a retired Churches of Christ minister who worked in a migration centre in Melbourne, then the human rights program of the World Council of Churches, before returning to take responsibility for the international program of the ACTU.

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