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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Practicing What Is Preached

Before he became an apostle, Matthew was a tax collector. So in a way it was a return to Matthew’s roots this week when he was officially named the patron saint of the tax police by Patriarch Alexy II.

In doing so, the patriarch was serving two ends — one missionary, the other pragmatic.

By tradition and mentality, if not by law, the Russian Orthodox Church is a state church, and in recent years it has sought to bring the government back to its fold. It has done so through an ad hoc arrangement of personal contacts and bilateral agreements, whether with ministries, government agencies or even presidents.

Armed forces agencies, with their often-demoralized servicemen, are in particular seen as prodigal sons. And patron saints play an obviously useful role in helping those of Orthodox background find the church welcoming.

Patron saints are often assigned in ways that also show the church’s hyper-awareness of the secular world. Not so long ago the patriarch appointed St. Barbara the patron saint of the Strategic Missile Forces — as it happens, the decree establishing the force was signed, by the atheist Nikita Khrushchev, on St. Barbara’s Day. St. Tatyana is the patron of students, meanwhile, because Empress Elizabeth founded Moscow State University on St. Tatyana’s Day in 1755.

But the Russian Orthodox Church has a far more complicated relationship with the tax authorities than it does with, say, students or rocket-forces officers.

In the past decade, the church has emerged as a major player on the business field, with an annual turnover believed to be in the hundreds of millions of dollars. And even as it claims a moral leadership role in society, the church has been notoriously nontransparent and tight-lipped about its money. Tax breaks meant to subsidize the rebuilding of churches and chapels seem to be more helpful to the numerous private businesses, and corruption cases that have sprung up along the way.

So Apostle Matthew may be helpful not just as a divine intercessor, but also as an earthly friendly liaison.

There is nothing wrong with preaching gospels to taxmen. But we think the church’s mission will be much stronger if it also reveals its budget and pays taxes where it must by law. "Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s," Matthew quotes Jesus as saying. (Matthew 22:21).

The state could help by granting clear and equal tax breaks to all religions; by setting up multi-confessional chaplains for the armed forces; and by legally codifying its relations with the church, and ditching the politics of personal friendships and vague agreements.