Church, State & Money

In signing two executive orders designed to lower the barriers between religious institutions and the government funding of social services, President George W. Bush has set off a broad, and sometimes heated, debate about the proper relationship between church and state. Good. Both religiously motivated people and determined secularists need to think hard about what is at stake in direct government support for the undeniable good done by religious groups for millions of needy and often forgotten Americans.

Initial response has been predictable enough. Groups like Americans United for Separation of Church and State are in full cry, warning of the imminent destruction of the supposedly sacrosanct "wall of separation" between religion and government. But no such wall exists, either constitutionally or historically, nor should it. A healthy politics must be informed by morality, and for the vast majority of Americans morality is inseparable from religion. Americans have always brought religious values into the public square, sometimes to great benefit (the civil rights movement) and sometimes for ill (Prohibition). What the Constitution does require is that government not favor one religion over another or religion generally over nonreligion. By the same token, however, the allocation of state funding need not favor secular over religious groups. Bush’s creation of a White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, at least in outline, purports to adhere strictly to these vital distinctions. "We will not fund the religious activities of any group, but when people of faith provide social services, we will not discriminate against them," Bush said. "We will help all in their work to change hearts while keeping a commitment to pluralism."

The devil, of course, is in the details. Although motivated by a largely unexamined antipathy toward "public" religion, the critics of Bush’s initiative raise important concerns. Can the proselytizing ethos of some religious groups easily be separated from the touted efficacy of their programs? In deciding who gets money, will government also be deciding what is or isn’t a legitimate religion? Do we really want taxpayer money going to someone like David Koresh? Or to the Church of Scientology, with its reputation for psychological manipulation and secrecy? Or to the Nation of Islam, whose leaders are known for their anti-Semitic diatribes?

Government money also brings with it miles of red tape and restrictive regulations. Will religious groups squander their already meager resources on administrative duties? Opportunities for graft and corruption will multiply as well, temptations to which religious people are no more immune than anyone else.

Defenders of the Bush plan respond that funding will go only for social-service programs, such as soup kitchens, shelters, or drug-treatment programs, not to religious activities or evangelization. Moreover, potential clients will be guaranteed a choice between faith-based and secular service programs. John J. DiIulio Jr., a respected social scientist, has been named head of the new White House initiative. DiIulio argues that "empirical methods" will be used to judge the relative merits of different service programs. "We will work with what is effective," he says. In other words, if the Church of Scientology runs a drug rehabilitation program that works and does not discriminate against non-Scientologists, it should be as eligible for government funding as any other religious or secular group.

Of course, government moneys have been flowing to religious hospitals and religious colleges and universities for decades. For the most part, that collaboration between church and state has worked well for both religious groups and the commonweal. Still, as the ongoing debate about the Catholic identity of hospitals and universities suggests, the acceptance of government money entails a significant accommodation to the larger culture. Here, perhaps even more than in the problem of bureaucratic red tape, is where the real danger lies. Yes, constitutional protection of individual rights is high in the United States, and Brigham Young University or Notre Dame is still free to be as Mormon or as Catholic as it wishes. But even when the impact of the modern state is largely benign, it wields enormous power. In times of conflict, that power can turn repressive. Independent religious institutions represent an indispensable source of countervailing moral authority and social and political resistance to the state. Think of how important religious opposition was to slavery, segregation, the war in Vietnam, and now to the practice of abortion and euthanasia. Would that opposition have been as forthright and effective if churches depended on a government check for crucial aspects of their ministries?

In accepting money from Washington, religious groups will inevitably sacrifice a degree of independence. In some cases, the advantages of such funding will far outweigh the dangers. But in others, churches, synagogues, etc. will want to forgo entanglement with the state. A robust pluralism, in this area as in others, is the best guarantor of liberty.

Published in the 2001-02-23 issue: 

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