Leap of Faith: The Perils of Government Funding Religion

by Rob Boston, assistant director of communications
Americans United for Separation of Church and State

June 24, 2001
Paint Branch Unitarian Universalist Church

More and more during these difficult times when our nation's tradition of separation of church and state seems under veritable siege--from the halls of Congress, from the White House, from the studios of ill-informed television preachers--I find myself turning to the wisdom of James Madison.

I sometimes think we advocates of church-state separation have placed too much emphasis on Thomas Jefferson, who coined the phrase "wall of separation between church and state." Jefferson was a genius; there is no denying that. He wrote the Declaration of Independence, one of the greatest documents in human history, a piece of writing that still inspires people more than 200 years later.

But when it comes to the separation of church and state, Madison was probably the more consistent advocate, the thinker who put theory into action. Madison was the architect of our Bill of Rights. He was firmly convinced that church-state separation was good for the nation, and he never wavered from that conviction. If anything, it grew stronger as the years passed.

People might wonder how Madison would react to President George Bush's proposal to award tax funds to "faith-based" programs. I think I can answer that: He would be appalled.

Don't take my word for it. Take Madison's. When a bill officially incorporating an Episcopal church in Washington, D.C., reached President James Madison's desk one day in February of 1811, he knew just what to do: reach for a veto pen.

Madison was never one to tolerate any official ties between church and state. As he explained in a veto message to Congress, he rejected the church incorporation measure because it "exceeds the rightful authority to which governments are limited by the essential distinction between civil and religious functions."

It "violates in particular," said Madison, "the article of the Constitution of the United States which declares that 'Congress shall make no law respecting a religious establishment.'"

The bill noted that the church would be involved with care of the poor and the education of their children. No public funds were earmarked for these charitable endeavors, but Madison saw the legislative action as a foot-in-the-door for such federal aid to religion. He told Congress the measure was "altogether superfluous if the provision is to be the result of pious charity." He added that the bill could "be a precedent for giving to religious societies as such a legal agency in carrying into effect a public and civil duty."

Years earlier, in 1785, Madison worked hard to defeat a proposal in Virginia by Patrick Henry to level a "general assessment" on taxpayers to support teachers of the Christian religion. The Henry bill was taxpayer supported religion, and Madison wanted no part of it. In opposition, he penned what is today considered one of the greatest documents in the history of religious freedom--"The Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments."

The Memorial and Remonstrance is essentially a list of 15 reasons why the Henry bill should be rejected. As far as I'm concerned, President George W. Bush should be forced to memorize Point Number Five. "[T]he bill implies either that the Civil Magistrate is a competent Judge of Religious Truth; or that he may employ Religion as an engine of Civil policy. The first is an arrogant pretension falsified by the contradictory opinions of all Rulers in all ages, and throughout the world: the second an unhallowed perversion of the means of salvation."

As you know, President Bush has launched a major national drive to give broad-based public funding to churches and other religious groups to provide social services. As part of the administration's crusade, Bush has created a new federal agency, the Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, that works from the White House to expand government aid to religious ministries and create church-state "partnerships."

Americans United has taken the lead nationally in opposing Bush's faith-based efforts. We believe his proposal clearly violates the separation of church and state. We go back to first principles here. Religion should be supported by voluntary contributions, not money coerced by force from the taxpayer. That's what Madison believed; it's what we believe. Any plan that requires people to support religion against their will--either financially or even symbolically--must be opposed.

Having said that, I want to make it clear that Americans United does not believe and does not argue that religious groups can never accept government funding. As a matter of fact, this practice has been going on a long time. Catholic Charities receives more than half of its budget from government sources in some parts of the country. Lutheran Social Services, various Jewish agencies and other also receive tax funding.

But this money is not given in the form of a blank check. There are strings attached. For example, the groups may not engage in aggressive proselytism. They cannot say to a needy person, "We will help you; we will feed you. But first you must pray with us, or watch this video about our religion." They can't do that. The religious groups also may not discriminate when hiring people to staff these programs. Finally, these groups must keep their government-funded programs accountable. In some cases, the religious groups will even establish separately incorporated non-profit groups to administer the government money.

Now compare that to what Bush wants to do. He basically wants to throw federal money at religious groups and tell them, "Be as religious as you want to be." In fact, Bush argues that the religiosity of the programs is what makes them work. So, under his approach, "faith-based" organizations could receive tax money and engage in proselytism, discriminate in hiring on religious grounds and refuse to let the government audit them or crack open the books. And that just isn't right.

There are people in the Bush administration who would dispute what I just said. To be honest, Bush and the members of his faith-based team have been all over the map lately. They don't seem to know what this initiative would do. One day we were told all religious groups--even the unpopular or unorthodox ones--can get the money. The next day we were told they can't. One day we hear that aggressive proselytism won't be permitted on the government's dime, a day later we get the opposite.

These folks aren't sending a consistent message--probably because they have yet to find a way to "spin" this concept in a manner that conceals its more unpalatable aspects. So they flounder.

My personal belief is that there is no way to "spin" the faith-based initiative. It's just a lousy idea. And some lousy ideas are so lousy they can't be dressed up and made presentable, not even for a short time. So, with that thought in mind, let me tell you in a little more detail why I think the faith-based initiative is such a bad idea.

1. Bush's plan violates the separation of the church and state.

We have to start with the basics: Under the First Amendment, American citizens are free to decide on their own whether or not to support religious ministries, and the government must stay out of it. Giving tax money to religious groups, which are then free to use that money to spread their religious views while they provide a social service, is a church tax--pure and simple. No way around it. We rejected church taxes more than 200 years ago. We consciously rejected them. A Supreme Court stacked with right-wing judicial activists might someday stand logic and the clear commands of the First Amendment on their head and find some way to approve this type of funding, but they will be doing so in violate of history and traditions, not in support of them.

2. Federally funded employment discrimination is unfair.

Under the president's proposal, churches will be legally permitted to take tax money and still discriminate on the basis of religion when hiring staff for their social service projects. A fundamentalist group, for example, will be able to receive tax aid to pay for a social service job, but still be free to hang up a sign that says "Jews And Catholics Need Not Apply."

In other words, an American could help pay for a job but be declared ineligible for the position because of his or her religious beliefs. For the first time in history, religious discrimination would not only be underwritten by the federal government but also actually celebrated as good public policy.

3. Religion could be forced on those in need of assistance.

Under Bush's approach, religious institutions would receive taxpayer support to finance social services and would still be free to proselytize people seeking assistance. I believe it's clear that Bush wants these groups to be able to retain the right to proselytize. And here's why I say that: Look at the groups Bush lauds when he makes media appearances on behalf of this initiative--Teen Challenge, prison programs run by Chuck Colson. The people who run these programs believe that a conversion to fundamentalist Christianity is what makes the program effective. So, under this initiative, we're going to have taxpayer-funded religious conversions.

4. Bush's plan opens the door to federal regulation of religion.

Government always regulates what it finances. That's just the way it is. It's a face of life. This occurs because public officials are obliged to make certain that taxpayer funds are properly spent. Once churches, temples, mosques and synagogues are being financed by the public, some of their freedom will be placed in jeopardy by the almost certain regulation to follow.

We have challenged the conservatives who back this plan, the same people who are fearful of government regulation in any other setting, to name one federal program that gives money with no strings attached. They can't do it. Why then would anyone assume that under this initiative, regulations would be swept away, not increased? Anyone who believes that is living in a fantasyland.

5. The vitality of our faith communities will be put in jeopardy.

When I speak before Unitarian Universalists I sometimes joke that if we separationists really wanted to destroy religion--as the Religious Right frequently asserts--than the first thing we would do is advocate a union of church and state, not a separation.

Unions of religion and government can produce one of two scenarios. One is a theocracy, like modern-day Afghanistan and Iran. The other scenario, more common in Western, traditionally Christian, nations, is what I call the lapdog phenomenon. Dependant upon the government for financial subsidies, these churches soon take on largely ceremonial role. Their leaders show up for important state functions, utter the appropriate words and fade back into the background. While state supported, these institutions are not looked upon by most people as serious sources for spiritual nourishment. Thus, in countries that retain established churches we see a great indifference to religion among the population and church attendance rate that can bottom out in the teens or lower.

6. Bush's plan pits faith groups against each other.

Let's be honest here: There is no way all religious groups are going to get money under this proposal. There just isn't enough out there. Bush and his advisors have talked openly about spurring competition for government grants among religious groups. Let's think about that for a minute. We take a big, fat government grant, tell 25 religious groups that only one of them can have it, then sit back and watch the fun. Am I missing something here? Doesn't this sound like a recipe for disaster?

7. Some religions will be favored over others.

This leads me to my next point: Who gets to decide which groups get a crack at the money? Who gets to actually dole it out? On what basis will those decisions be made? While on the campaign trail last year, Bush promised that he would "not discriminate for or against Methodist or Mormons or Muslims or good people with no faith at all."

But not long after that he announced he would not allow funding of the Nation of Islam, because, as he sees it, the group "preaches hate." Stephen Goldsmith, who will be chiefly responsible for implementing the president's plan, has indicated the administration may also discriminate against groups affiliated with the Wiccan faith. Wiccans, he implied on a nationally broadcast television program, would not be capable of providing a humane social service, like a shelter for battered women.

Actually, most of the Wiccans I've met are gentle souls, certainly more so than a fire-and-brimstone style fundamentalist. So if you ask me, Mr. Goldsmith is operating on some unfounded assumptions or maybe even some personal prejudices. My point is, what happens when the people in charge of distributing the money to religious groups summarily decide that certain groups won't even be considered? Is that fair? Is it even legal?

8. There's no proof that religious groups will offer better care than secular providers.

Supporters of the faith-based initiative boldly assert that private religious organizations always do a better job than secular or government providers. The media buys right into this. Where is the evidence? There isn't any.

Let's consider one common example. I mentioned Teen Challenge a moment ago. This is a fundamentalist drug and alcohol recovery group that claims to have an 80 percent success rate in helping teen addicts. This figure--"an 80 percent success rate"--has been repeated over and over again--in the media, in state legislatures, on the floor of the House of Representatives. It was recently cited in an opinion piece penned by TV preacher Pat Robertson.

So is this true? There is good reason for skepticism. I did a little research on the Internet and quickly found a man in Minnesota who has looked into this. He reported that 65 percent of the young people who go into Teen Challenge programs drop out before completion. Thus, the group can claim an 80 percent success rate only among the 35 percent who stay in for the whole program. Suddenly this does not sound so impressive.

9. Both liberals and conservative are concerned about Bush's plan.

Barry Lynn, the executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, and TV preacher Pat Robertson rarely agree on anything, so when you hear that they have agreed on something, maybe it's time to take a second look. Both Barry and Robertson have expressed concerns about the "faith-based " initiative--but for different reasons.

Americans United contends that the government should not be in the business of funding religious groups. We believe religion should pay its own way. Robertson is worried that religious groups he doesn't like will get some of that money. In our view, his concerns would be ameliorated if we simply dropped the plan.

Oddly enough, other conservative religious leaders have expressed concerns about this initiative--including Jerry Falwell and Richard Land, a top official with the Southern Baptist Convention. Land went so far as to say he would not touch the money with a 10-foot pole.

10. If it ain't broke, don't fix it.

Here's the final reason why we don't need this plan: We can already fund religious groups to operate secular social service under certain conditions. Catholic Charities, Lutheran Social Services and various Jewish groups, for example, often have received government grants and contracts. However, strict safeguards have been in place to protect the interests of taxpayers and the religious liberties of those receiving assistance. Independent religious agencies, not churches themselves, handled the public funds. Tax dollars supported only secular programs, and no religious discrimination with public funds was permitted. And there was oversight to make sure these rules were followed.

That system worked well and was consistent with the First Amendment. Bush's plan radically alters that set-up by allowing religious groups to preach while providing public services.

All of these reasons are compelling, but to me the bedrock issue remains this: Forcing people to pay for or support religion in any way is always a bad idea. Unions of church and state foster only oppression, never freedom. All history shows this to be true.

One of my interests is ancient history. Recently I finished a book called When Jesus Became God by Richard Rubenstein. It's about the Arian controversy in 4th century Rome, as clergy and emperors struggled to define what orthodoxy would be in the relatively new Christian faith.

Constantine the Great played a major role in that debate. In my view, Constantine is one of the most pivotal figures in Christian history. While he did not make Christianity the Roman Empire's official religion, he extended certain forms of preferential treatment to the faith, including financial subsidies. Some years later, another emperor, Theodosius I, proclaimed Christianity the official religion of the empire and banned all forms of Pagan worship.

That was the legacy Constantine left the West. And what was the fallout from that? 14 centuries of religion oppression. 14 centuries of religious war. 14 centuries of "Christians vs. infidels." 14 centuries of bloodshed.

Thankfully, by the time Jefferson and Madison came along the world was finally beginning to emerge from that chaos. There were still plenty of people around who believed that religion could not survive without the support of the government, but new thinkers were challenging that view. Time would prove the new thinkers right.

I began this speech with some words from James Madison. I'd like to end with some more. In 1821 a clergyman in New York wrote to Madison, enclosing a copy of one of his recent sermons that endorsed the separation of church and state. Madison enjoyed the sermon and wrote back to offer his praise.

He wrote, "The experience of the United States is a happy disproof of the error so long rooted in the unenlightened minds of well-meaning Christians, as well as in the corrupt hearts of persecuting usurpers, that without legal incorporation of religious and civil polity, neither could be supported. A mutual independence is found most friendly to practical Religion, to social harmony, and to political prosperity."

To that I can only say Amen. We would be a much better nation if today's politicians had even a quarter of the wisdom of James Madison.

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