An article in the New York Times this week, “Religious Groups Reap Federal Aid for Pet Projects“, gives some troubling details about the growing trend of religious groups seeking – and receiving – no-strings-attached federal grants disbursed by a direct act of Congress, usually called “earmarks”, to fund their pet projects. Sometimes these grants are for secular purposes, such as ministries that fund job training programs or religious colleges studying how best to reduce gang violence. However, on other occasions, the secular purpose is far more questionable: transferring public land to a church that wants to expand its parking lot, or funding faith-based abstinence programs such as the Silver Ring Thing (which is really just a program of evangelical Christian proselytism in thin disguise). The Times has a full list of religious earmarks for the past several Congresses.
I think earmarks in general are a bad idea – they provide far too much opportunity for kickbacks, corruption and wasteful pork spending intended to buy constituents’ votes. In my opinion, the government should not be allowed to directly distribute tax money to any private group, except through a process of open and competitive bidding that gives all qualified applicants a chance. However, earmarks to religious groups pose an even more serious constitutional problem. It is the principle that matters: even if the government is only giving a small amount of money for the support of religion, that is still a violation of the First Amendment. As James Madison put it in his famous 1785 Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments:
Who does not see that the same authority… which can force a citizen to contribute three pence only of his property for the support of any one establishment, may force him to conform to any other establishment in all cases whatsoever?
I’m not saying that society should never aid religiously affiliated organizations in any way at all. I do not oppose government grants to religious organizations for secular purposes, so long as those groups are accountable for results obtained and obtain the money through a fair and competitive process that also allows secular groups to compete. And it goes without saying that no government money should ever be used for activities that promote religion, coerce participants to convert, or discriminate on the basis of belief. Groups that are pervasively and inescapably theistic, and cannot or will not separate their religious aims from their secular ones, should not be eligible.
Not only do goverment handouts to religion endanger our society’s official religious neutrality, they are a bad idea for churches as well. A church that becomes dependent on government money has little incentive to solicit the voluntary contributions that are its true livelihood, and if the spigot of public dollars ever shuts off, that luckless church may have forgotten how to sustain itself and could end up falling apart. Even if this does not happen, accepting government money almost inevitably fosters a sense of dependence on, and identification with, the source of that money. In the end, that church may become less a religious organization than a political one, exchanging its principles for material benefit. To their credit, there are many clergy members who recognize this and preach against accepting government handouts (though unfortunately, when public money is made available, some of those very clergy are among those rushing to get it – Pat Robertson being a notable example).
In a society as religious as ours, some degree of government patronage to religion is a foregone conclusion. Theistic voters wield far too much influence for politicians not to try to buy them, and many elected officials are themselves religious believers who value aiding their ideological allies more than they value the separation of church and state. Defenders of the First Amendment can and should bring legal action wherever appropriate to compel this to cease, but trying to stop all religious earmarks in this way would be like trying to plug all the holes in a leaky dike. In the short term we should rely on the Constitution, but in the long term, our strategy should be aimed at decreasing the numbers and influence of religion in general, so that buying the believers off becomes less of a feasible electoral strategy.