The COVID-19 crisis and its attending economic disruption have brought a conundrum to Baptist and other Protestant churches in the United States. Should they take the loan and promised forgiveness offered through the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), which offers small businesses and 501(c)(3) nonprofits eight weeks of payroll assistance to help soften some of the pandemic’s economic impact? As long as the church or nonprofit can certify that it has been negatively affected by the COVID-19 crisis and needs access to these funds, it is eligible for the program, a requirement which would exclude very few congregations.
For Baptists and some other Protestant groups, this poses a difficult problem around the question of separation of church and state. Simply put, should the government be paying ministers’ salaries for eight weeks? Even if it is done in a roundabout way, through banks and lenders and not directly through the government, it does eventually amount to government support of faith-based organizations.
“The PPP program does not establish or privilege any one tradition.”
After our Illinois congregation applied for and received PPP funding, one congregant confessed that it made him uneasy, as if the wall separating church and state was eroding. While the PPP loan was fine in the abstract, this person became concerned after the money had been deposited. I understand and respect that concern, and I suspect leaders in other churches may face similar objections during the lifespan of the loan.
Many organizations have already applied for and accepted initial funding through PPP, but each will have to go through a separate process to apply for forgiveness of the loan through their lender. This may open the door to more conversations about the ethical and theological rationale for accepting the funds.
I want to outline why Baptist churches ought to be comfortable participating in the PPP program from a Baptist theological perspective. Out of all the mainline Protestant traditions, Baptists historically have offered the most thorough critique of state power in the religious sphere, being outdone only by Anabaptists and Quakers. As such, Baptist lines of thinking about this issue can be a touchstone for other, more general wariness of the PPP’s indirect funding of religious communities.
While the Baptist principle of separation of church and state is longstanding, what that principle actually means has become fuzzier over time. What seems clear from history is that our tradition’s brightest lights were not concerned about undue religious influence over the governmental sphere. Rather, they were striving to erect a boundary between church and state in order to protect the church.
Roger Williams’ The Bloudy Tenent of Persecution was written to uphold the truth that “men’s [sic] consciences ought in no sort to be violated, urged, or constrained.” Such an argument was radical in a time where religious warfare was rife. In offering a vision of state that was multi-religious, Williams was arguing that people ought to be free to believe whatever they like and that force cannot truly compel true worship. Centuries ahead of his time, Williams would go on to found the religiously pluralist and freethinking Rhode Island Plantation, a colony without an established church.
Likewise, analysis of the Danbury Baptists in Connecticut reveals a similar concern. Connecticut established Congregationalism as its state church under its original constitution. Other states also had established churches. The constitution only provided that that the federal government would do no such thing; states were free to establish whatever religion they like. In an 1801 letter to Thomas Jefferson, the Danbury Baptist Association stated:
“Our sentiments are uniformly on the side of religious liberty: that Religion is at all times and places a matter between God and individuals, that no man ought to suffer in name, person, or effects on account of his religious opinions, [and] that the legitimate power of civil government extends no further than to punish the man who works ill to his neighbor … what religious privileges we enjoy (as a minor part of the State) we enjoy as favors granted, and not as inalienable rights. And these favors we receive at the expense of such degrading acknowledgments, as are inconsistent with the rights of freemen.”
Those privileges meant the right to gather, the right to have churches, raise funds, do public works, etc. The Danbury Baptists believed in the separation of church and state as a safeguard for religious minorities (a radical idea at the time), and they wanted it guaranteed, not just because religious majorities felt like being nice.
Such commitments to separation of church and state and religious pluralism are an inalterable part of Baptist identity. They are what sustained my interest in our strange, venerable tradition. These same principles might make Baptist churches uneasy about participation in the PPP program. However, I do not think they represent a significant roadblock for one key reason: this program does not establish or privilege any one tradition. Synagogues, mosques, Roman Catholic parishes, Quaker meeting houses and humanist associations are all invited to participate. That is because government has a longstanding investment in religious communities thriving. Strong religious communities do inestimable good in their cities and towns, and the government has long supported that work through tax-free status, housing allowances for ministers and a range of favorable policies.
“Pass on that money to your community through innovative approaches that do good.”
Most interpretations of separation of church and state have not meant that the government has nothing to do with houses of worship. They have instead been concerned with whether the government privileges some over others.
In addition to the historical and theological argument, there are practical reasons why Baptist and other Protestant congregations ought to participate in the PPP program. Without this funding, these churches risk emerging from the crisis weaker and less able to do good. They also risk falling behind peer congregations that do take advantage of the program.
A decision not to participate in the PPP program would be a mistake, in my view; but if churches are seeking a theologically constructive approach to taking the money, might I suggest this: Walk humbly; walk the walk to which Jesus has invited us. If your congregation does take the money, see it as an invitation to do more good in your community. Pass on that money to your community through innovative approaches that do good.
Don’t take the money and run; take the money and walk.
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