Mingling Church and State while Social Distancing

Have a pandemic and all the government response completely undone the temporal-spiritual distinction? One expression of that differentiation is the separation of church and state (or religious disestablishment) that comes with the U.S. Constitution and early modern political liberalism more generally.

Baptists used to be very adamant about the separation of church and state, sometimes even celebrating a wall if it preserved religious liberty. In 1947 the Southern Baptists called for a Constitutional Amendment to affirm the separation of church and state and “to prohibit sectarian appropriations to non-public educational institutions.” This was likely in the context of certain kinds of state aid going to parochial (read Roman Catholic) schools. Twenty years later, a constitutional amendment was out of the question but a resolution asking Congress to make laws against federal funding going to church-related schools was still in the SBC wheelhouse.

we urge the Congress of the United States to enact legislation which would help clarify responsibility of the judiciary to interpret the meaning of the United States Constitution for separation of Church and State, including constitutionality of federal funds in church-sponsored programs

That now seems like ancient history with all the computer models, hand washing, apocalyptic headlines, and rising rates of death on planet earth. The wall between church and state has come down with a bang and Southern Baptists are apparently fine with it.

They may receive funding from the government‘s economic stimulus package through the loan portion of the plan:

The benefits allotted to small business, nonprofits, and houses of worship include payroll protection and access to a covered loan if the nonprofit organization maintains their employees. The loan can go to cover the cost of group healthcare benefits during periods of paid sick, medical, or family leave, and insurance premiums, employee salaries, rent, utilities, and interest on any other debt obligations that were incurred before the covered period. The program is designed to allow for the loan to be forgiven if used to cover payroll expenses. . . .

In the midst of these uncertain times, this government aid can hopefully provide some needed financial relief for individuals, nonprofits, and churches.

Southern Baptists may also follow government guidelines restricting worship services under no penalty of violating religious liberty:

The current situation facing us is not a case of the state overstepping its bounds, but rather seeking to carry out its legitimate God-given authority. Nowhere, at this point, have we seen churches targeted because of their beliefs or mission. At issue is a clear public objective—stopping the transmission of a dangerous virus by gatherings. . . . .

The situation will almost inevitably lead to even stronger and less voluntary government actions. Could these encroach on religious liberty? That is certainly possible, but not necessarily. To prevent that, we will need more secular leaders to think carefully about why religion is important and more religious leaders to be thinking through the complexities of public health. If we remain on the same ‘team’ when it comes to overcoming this crisis, we can avoid overreach on one side or paranoia on the other. And that’s what we will need.

Any order should include the maximum recognition of the need for clergy and other religious workers to carry out necessary ministry, in the same category as health care workers. Such ministry is necessary. A nursing home patient who is in peril needs a doctor to care for her physically, but also should be allowed to have a pastor pray for her, her priest administer last rites, or whatever the equivalent would be in her religion. We can make such exceptions without creating jeopardy to lives, just as we have in every other time in human history from the Black Plague to the 1918 influenza crisis.

I’m not sure which is more at odds with the First Amendment. Freedom of assembly seems pretty basic to civil liberties. When China cracks down on public protests, Americans shout “authoritarian”! But now, even Southern Baptists seem to be comfortable with government shutdowns of worship. They even seem incapable of wondering if government officials use an emergency for ends other than public health.

At the same time, giving money to churches (or lending money that will not have to be repaid) is about as big an instance of the establishment of religion as Protestants once imagined. Heck, they even worried about using public school buses (with funding from public coffers) to give Roman Catholic students rides to parochial schools.

But not every one is happy. Cue the atheists:

Organizations that advocate for strict church-state separation are criticizing the program.

“The government cannot directly fund inherently religious activities,” argues Alison Gill, legal and policy vice president of American Atheists. “It can’t spend government tax dollars on prayer, on promoting religion [or] proselytization. That directly contradicts the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. This is the most drastic attack on church-state separation we have ever seen.”

According to the First Amendment, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

Advocates for government funding of religious institutions argue that denying them aid that is available to nonreligious institutions amounts to discrimination, and the U.S. Supreme Court has recently declined to challenge such support.

“In the last 15 years, the Court has moved increasingly in a permissive direction,” says John Inazu, who specializes in religion and law at Washington University in St. Louis’ School of Law. “There’s just an increased willingness by the court to allow for direct funding of religious entities.”

The powers of COVID-19 seem to be more “total” than the president’s.


12 thoughts on “Mingling Church and State while Social Distancing

  1. I’ve been saying for years that if I were ever in a position that came with decision making capacity in this area, I would never be a 501c3.

    I say we pay our taxes and keep the strongarm of the law as far away from us as is biblically possible. I cannot find the Gospel wisdom in accepting a privileged status that by definition gives the pagans a say in what we do and preach in Jesus name.

    Any professed “Christian” organization that by the grace and power of God cannot survive paying taxes, shouldn’t.


  2. He’s got a point: “whose bread I eat, his song I sing.” Remember how federal aid to education was not going to compromise local control of schooling? Now it’s “Dear Colleague, Get in line or else.”


  3. I feel a deep and immeasurable heartache for the atheists and their general misunderstanding of the Establishment Clause; as well as the bitter effects they’ve incurred as a result of their continual striving to suppress the truth in unrighteousness.


  4. But don’t you know that endorsing the separation of church and state leads inexorably to two-kingdom theology which caused the Nazi’s?


  5. @SDB:

    Falwell as a 2ker? My oh my.

    BUT that raises an important point: do Christians of all stripes including liberals appeal to 2k when convenient and to “all of life” when convenient?


  6. Greg,

    What problems would it solve for Christian organizations to pay taxes? Taxes are not fund programs but a means of social policy. It says so right in the tax code. For example, look at cigarette taxes: the taxes are very high to discourage their use. As Christianity increasingly becomes superstitio illicitas, they’ll just raise the taxes on Christian organizations.

    It was historically understood that religions were exempt from taxes in the United States otherwise the government has control over them which eliminates the separation between church and state.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. @jc I suspect we are all susceptible to fair weather principles. Of course not many are as crass as F. Jr…


  8. Jeff, I’ll see your question (answer: yes) and raise another: can citizens who also happen to be 2k Christians be critics of the President and not all-of-life moralizers? I wonder if guys like Fea contemplate that.


  9. @Z
    Yep. I wonder why folks Fea can’t seem understand why it is possible for a Christian to be a critic of the Star Wars prequels without thinking that scripture must speak to them AND possible to have opinions about politics without thinking that scripture speaks to them. In other words, one can have awful taste in movies and be a good Christian just as one can have awful political opinions and be a good Christian.


  10. sdb, but I’ll push it. Can Christians who collapse the kingdoms and politicize faith be said to be kosher? I might be more inclined to say it’s one thing to not question the faith of the likes of Falwell, Jeffress, and Graham, another to question their practice. Or put another way, another political view from me is one thing (liberty), another to baptize those politics. Once you do the latter maybe your faith needs disciplining.

    When I read fellow political critics like Fea, though, I don’t discern that kind of nuance. I read that because your politics aren’t mine your faith needs disciplining.


  11. Jerry Falwell Junior—“There’s two kingdoms. There’s the earthly kingdom and the heavenly kingdom. In the heavenly kingdom the responsibility is to treat others as you’d like to be treated. In the earthly kingdom, the responsibility is to choose leaders who will do what’s best for your country. Think about it. Why have Americans been able to do more to help people in need around the world than any other country in history? It’s because of free enterprise, freedom, ingenuity, entrepreneurism and wealth. A poor person never gave anyone a job. A poor person never gave anybody charity, not of any real volume. It’s just common sense to me.”

    Print that money and give it to the banks, and it will trickle-down to the job creators.

    Mark 12: 43 This poor widow put in more than all the others to the treasury. Because they have all contributed from their wealth, but she from her poverty….

    “The appeal of Niebuhr’s social ethics is clear: it’s the Yankee pragmatism and “realism”. But its rich pickings for Obama cannot disguise its profound theological poverty. A loyal two-kingdoms Lutheran, Niebuhr was completely candid that the ethics of Jesus has no moral purchase in the realm of power politics. That in his life, death, and resurrection Jesus has actually inaugurated the eschatological transformation of the world; and that the Holy Spirit is now present and active…. these facts simply do not factor in the moral calculus of Niebuhr’s finally quite pagan reading of geopolitics. Hence the cynical reduction of the option for Christians to either blessing US military interventions or “doing nothing”… Obama remains mesmerised by the heathen myth of American exceptionalism.

    The sin of American Christendom, REformed 2k or Roman Catholic–it thinks it can serve two masters.

    F. A. Hayek –“It is probable that more harm and misery have been caused by men determined to use coercion to stamp out a moral evil than by men intent on doing moral evil.”



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.