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Faith-Based Groups Should Be Careful What Whey Wish For

by Andrew M. Schocket on Jun 11, 2001

Andrew M. Schocket

The Bush administration wants to drop some cash in the collection plate.

If Congress enacts the proposed “faith-based initiative,” the federal government will help pay for religious institutions’ social programs. Federal funding of religious organizations’ good works would enable these groups to divert money currently spent on such activities any way they want. In effect, tax dollars would be supporting churches, mosques and synagogues.

The plan’s defenders argue that closer church-state ties would help to drive immorality from public life, but the perils of government money’s influence on religious life pose a greater threat to American society.

Hoping for a windfall, many religious organizations strongly back the Bush proposal. They might be surprised to know that their wisest predecessors fought tooth and nail against state-funded religion. Past leaders understood what we sometimes forget: when religious groups depend upon the state, they abandon their ability — indeed, their duty — to question it.

The nation’s founders also confronted the thorny issue of public funding of religious institutions. Before the American Revolution, many colonial churches were “established.” They received public funds to pay clergy, build chapels and provide social services. But each colony funded only one denomination.

Challenging these established churches, evangelical preachers dared to suggest that souls equal in the eyes of heaven should be equal on earth, too. They could say such things because their salaries didn’t depend upon the pleasure of public officials. Meanwhile, their established colleagues refrained from biting the hand that fed them, essentially abdicating their moral authority.

Little have we learned. The Bush administration’s lobbying for its program threatens to produce the same dangerous result. This spring, John J. DiIulio, Jr., director of the White House Office of Faith-Based Initiatives, aggressively courted numerous religious groups, suggesting that they would receive generous funding should the proposal be enacted.

At the same time, other Bush officials pushed some of those organizations to drop their opposition to his tax cut. No one has suggested that the administration has made faith-based funding contingent upon ecclesiastic approval of its other policies, but the possibility for abuse is obvious. If the initiative is enacted, political officials would be able to link federal funding to church endorsement of their policies, not excluding such issues of concern to religious leaders as the death penalty and economic equality.

James Madison, Thomas Jefferson and other eighteenth-century leaders knew better. When independence required Virginia to form a new government, a coalition of Baptists and political leaders forced the legislature to suspend public payments to the Anglican Church. The language of the church’s defenders (advocates of the “antidisestablishmentarianism” that schoolchildren cite as the longest English word) sounds familiar in 2001: they foretold social “vice and immorality, lewdness and profanity” should the state stop financing religion. In that same spirit, former presidential candidate Gary Bauer has exulted that the Bush plan could “change the last 30 years of religion being kicked out of the public square,” thus restoring morality to public life.

But having the state pay for religion actually runs the danger of removing morality from religious life, because government money always comes with strings attached. Understanding that, in the late 1770s Virginia’s evangelicals rejected a plan to fund all “Christian churches” equally. One Baptist congregation sagely warned that “those whom the State employs in its service, it has a Right to regulate and dictate to; it may judge and determine who shall preach; when and where they shall preach; and what they must preach.”

Those words could be applied equally to the current proposal. To skirt First Amendment challenges, the plan limits when, where and how religious groups may preach, pray or proselytize in funded activities.

Still, many religious leaders in poor neighborhoods welcome any help for their impoverished parishioners and support the Bush initiative. Their organizations perform admirable service among the least privileged. But the faith-based grants would barely scratch the surface of deep needs. Meanwhile, the Bush administration’s proposed cutbacks in other social programs that would help these communities dwarf anything that might be gained in faith-based funding. They stand to lose more than they gain.

Other states followed revolutionary Virginia, and the First Amendment barred a federal establishment of religion. Since then, the nation has benefited greatly from religious independence. Free of obligation to cozy up to civil authority, American religious figures have constantly challenged their government, among them the abolitionist Henry Ward Beecher and Martin Luther King, Jr.

Today, many jailed addicts welcome the Nation of Islam’s laudable anti-drug efforts and deserving refugees obtain aid from the Catholic Church. These are independent programs, based partly on reasonable distrust of state-controlled programs.

American society is richer for past religious leaders’ principled resistance to government money. They understood that for religion to be free, it must pay its own way.

Andrew M. Schocket is author of “Founding Corporate Power in Early National Philadelphia” and director of American Culture Studies at Bowling Green State University.