In 1804, the ink was barely dry on the Constitution and Bill of Rights when a Virginia Baptist preacher named John Leland wrote: “The fondness of magistrates to foster Christianity, has done it more harm than all the persecutions ever did. Persecution, like a lion, tears the saints to death, but leaves Christianity pure: state establishment of religion, like a bear, hugs the saints, but corrupts Christianity.”
Some 213 years later, American Christian communities are struggling fiscally and numerically, if not spiritually, some appealing to “the fondness of magistrates” for help. Recent signs include:
- The Supreme Court is currently considering Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia, Inc. v. Comer, whereby a Missouri congregation requests funds from state-based grants to improve its playground, thereby challenging the state constitution’s mandate that no money from the “public treasury, directly or indirectly” can go “in aid of any church, sect or denomination of religion.” The church claims that since its playground is used for secular childcare programs, it is entitled to apply for the grant.
- Responding to numerous church-based entreaties, President Trump recently issued an executive order urging the IRS to limit enforcement of the Johnson Amendment, an act that forbids non-profit, or 501(c)(3), organizations from direct campaigning for specific political candidates. His action will doubtless have limited impact since the amendment has seldom been enforced. Nonetheless, several conservative commentators faulted the president for failing to act more definitively, calling Congress to rescind the Johnson Amendment entirely.
- Amid continuing calls for “school choice” between public and private K-12 education, President Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos pledged to make $20 billion in vouchers available for private schools including Christian-oriented institutions. In a February 2017 article entitled “Catholic Schools Saved by Vouchers,” The Atlantic’s Laura McKenna studied the Milwaukee Diocese, concluding that “Catholic churches have kept their schools alive with the help of vouchers — public money given to parents to spend for their children’s education at the private school of their choice.” Yet that voucher-infusion could not sustain all diocesan schools given declines in church attendance, offerings and “shrinking numbers of nuns as a source of free labor.”
These actions have not gone unchallenged. Exercising its heritage of dissent, the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty raises serious concerns about such church/state engagement. Responding to the Trinity Lutheran case, the BJC’s opposing brief asserts: “The historical fight for disestablishment, led by Baptists and other religious dissenters, is well documented. Disestablishment ensured that churches would not be funded through the coercive power of the state, but through the voluntary offerings of adherents, thus providing a constraint on government and a measure of religious liberty for individuals — to fund or refuse to fund religious institutions — that had long been denied.”
The brief suggests that while the congregation claims eligibility for state funding because of the “secular” use of its playground, such “facilities are not readily segregated between religious use and secular use devoid of religious import.” Judicial attempts to distinguish a church’s religious and secular activities compromise the church’s autonomy. State money compromises congregational identity.
Regarding the Johnson Amendment, the BJC joined Americans United for Separation of Church and State in asking supporters to sign letters opposing “any effort to repeal or weaken current law that protects houses of worship from becoming centers of partisan politics. Changing the law would threaten the integrity and independence of houses of worship. We must not allow our sacred spaces to be transformed into spaces used to endorse or oppose political candidates.”
Clearly, segments of American Christianity are declining. Roman Catholics and Southern Baptists, the nation’s two largest Christian groups, illustrate the point. A 2016 study from Public Religion Research Institute suggests: “While non-white Protestants and non-Christian religious groups have remained fairly stable, white Protestants and Catholics have all experienced declines, with Catholics suffering the largest decline among major religious groups: a 10-percentage point loss overall. Nearly one-third (31%) of Americans report being raised in a Catholic household, but only about one in five (21%) Americans identify as Catholic currently.”
Similar Southern Baptist statistics reflect seven years of decline in both baptisms and church membership. For several years, 60 percent of SBC churches reported baptizing only one or no person between the ages of 18-30. In 2016, while the number of SBC-related congregations increased, reported membership declined more than 200,000, down 1.32 percent to 15.3 million members. Average weekly worship attendance declined by 1.72 percent to 5.6 million worshippers.
Do numerical, financial and cultural declines compel churches to seek expanded assistance from the secular government? As culture-privilege deteriorates, does government-privilege become increasingly essential? Yet increased reliance on government funds and influence may become self-fulfilling prophecy, driving new generations away from religious institutions that promote political candidates, demand fiscal entitlements in the name of religious liberty, or cannot make the gospel case in the public square. Whether the culture is affirming, antagonistic or indifferent to the Jesus Story, it remains the church’s good news of justice, reconciliation and compassion.
In 1791, Leland wrote that such religious entanglements “metamorphose the church into a creature, and religion into a principle of state, which has a natural tendency to make [persons] conclude that Bible religion is nothing but a trick of state.” He was right. Then and now.