Are Religion and Secular Government Competing Forces?

Are Religion and Secular Government Competing Forces? April 25, 2018

It’s a widely documented trope among right-wing Evangelicals that the phrase ‘separation of church and state’ isn’t in the Constitution. They quite readily assert that the first amendment is designed to protect churches from the government, but not the other way around. As if that could be accomplished without it being a two way street designed to protect minority religions (or non-religion) from the tyranny of the majority. This misapprehension is a worldview problem. They agree with the rest of us that government is by and for the people. But they also believe that people are subject to the laws of their god and therefore government should be too. This is a problem.

More importantly, because of the history of church outreach to underserved communities, there exists an inherent power struggle between churches and governments over who is responsible for what services.

Protestors clash outside the Notre Dame de Paris Cathedral in 1904. France would go on to establish Secular rule of law in December of 1905. Image Credit: Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Religiosity Declines When Secular Services are Plentiful

A new study published this month explores the notion that religiosity and well-being has an inverse relationship with the availability of government services that fill the same roles. That is to say, people are more likely to be religious if religious institutions are the sole source of a social safety net because of limits on government.

Authors Miron Zuckerman and Chen Li demonstrate: “If a secular entity provides what people need, they will be less likely to seek help from God or other supernatural entities.”

That is to say if services are provided with fewer strings attached people will naturally gravitate to the providers that are less restrictive of their lifestyle and beliefs as a barrier to entry. I don’t think this is a notion that comes as a shock to most of my readers but I find this topic interesting so I would like to speculate on it a bit.

The religious right’s narrative, such as it is, claims that the burden of facilitating services to the poor is the purview of the church and attempts by governments to provide those services is an infringement of their liberties because believers are then compelled to pay taxes to pay for those programs. Yet, they happily tithe their mandated 10% to their respective church to provide similar services. So it’s not the case that they don’t believe in charity or support for the needy. It’s more the case that they believe their religious leaders should decide who is and isn’t entitled to that aid. It’s very tribal.

I suspect there’s a very real bit of cognitive dissonance going on there. If government is providing the same services as a church, then there is an inherent loss of value for that 10% they’re paying into the church coffers. Religions (American Evangelical Christianity in particular) has tried to account for this diminished utility with the rise of prosperity gospel culture. Prosperity gospel seeks to shift the purpose of tithing from a donation to provide services for the needy to a demonstration of faith with a new value-add of promised future returns.

An Analogy to Street Drugs Might be Helpful

Churches and governments compete for your money and allegiance. Let’s take school choice initiatives as a relevant example. School voucher programs decrease funds to public schools and instead allow tax dollars to pay for parents to elect their children’s education in a religious school. All arguments about the plusses and minuses of that aside the economic result is less money to government and more money to churches. Either way you’re giving that money to someone for the same ostensible purpose (educating children) which means less money in your pocket. (Side note: It’s interesting that while you’ll hear arguments about reducing tax rates all the time, you never hear anyone lobbying churches to lower tithing rates … just pointing that out. You’d think there’d be at least someone organizing prayer circles to pray that god recognize economic hardship and reduce the tithing rate to 5%. Just a thought.)

So what we really have is, much like in the street drug trade, a battle over territory. If a drug dealer can force a competitor out of their neighborhood they create a monopoly in the region. Likewise, if the church can get a government food bank shut down due to insufficient funds, they can then move into the market and provide those services in exchange for adherence to doctrine and the requisite tithes. This decreases the role of secular government and inflates the role of the religion. The Church can then compel behavior in accordance with it’s own rules in exchange for those services. Rules which are not subject to democratic reforms.

God Doesn’t Let You Vote on Policy

If the ability to discriminate is enshrined in law for entities like religiously owned soup kitchens, half-way houses, hospitals, or other service providers this gives them influence to enforce their beliefs on disadvantaged others. Want a vasectomy or abortion? If the only game in town is a Catholic hospital, too bad. Want a hot meal? You need to listen to this sermon and say few amens first. Need assistance with your spouse’s medical expenses? Sorry, the church doesn’t recognize your marriage so you’re out of luck.

Government is accountable to all of us, churches are only accountable to their hierarchy’s interpretation of what God wants. The implication being you’d best fall in line if you want any help.

Enter The First Amendment Defense Act

In a great article this week for Religious News Service, FFRF attorney Andrew Seidel lays out the case against Senate Bill 2525, which seeks to diminish the impact of anti-discrimination laws by making religious belief a legal excuse for discrimination. There’s no other way to put that. Theocratic forces want to make it possible for anyone to deny services to anyone else based on their ‘deeply held beliefs’. Now it’s one thing when we’re talking about wedding cakes, but it’s entirely another when talking about food or healthcare.

In the bill’s findings it states that:

“In a pluralistic society, in which people of good faith hold more than one view of marriage, it is possible for the government to recognize same-sex marriage as required by the United States Supreme Court without forcing persons with sincerely held religious beliefs or moral convictions to the contrary to conform.”

Hypothetically I agree with that, but only if material services are also being provided by a source that is neutral to those beliefs (like secular government). However, if the sole source of aid services have a religious position on an issue it is unconscionable to allow a law that would deny those services solely on the basis of whether the person in need agrees with the service provider’s religious opinion. The bill also states that, for the purposes of interpretation ‘persons’ would include entities like: non-profit companies (including churches), privately owned businesses, partnerships, HOAs, private law firms, LLCs, S-Corporations, and anything else that isn’t publicly traded. So take a minute to consider the implications of allowing service providers to compel adherence to religious dogma as part of the cost of obtaining those services. Then contact your government officials and tell them S.B. 2525 is a terrible bill.

As Seidel points out in his piece:

“The Senate bill is not the bulwark its name suggests but the latest salvo in the ongoing attempt to redefine religious freedom as religious privilege. It does nothing to defend the First Amendment; in fact, it violates it.”

About Jack Matirko
Jack Matirko is an activist, blogger, and podcaster focussing on issues of church and state separation. He runs Patheos.com's Satanic Blog For Infernal Use Only, co-hosts the Naked Diner Podcast, and is a member of The Satanic Temple-Arizona Chapter. His opinions are his own. To contribute to his work please consider becoming a patron of his podcast. You can read more about the author here.
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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Michael Neville

    The reason why governments got into the social welfare business in the first place was that private charities couldn’t handle the load. During the Great Depression there were legitimate fears of widespread starvation. So various government schemes to provide food and money to the unemployed were devised. Few (the number is not zero) people starved during the Depression. However during World War II thousands of men in the US, UK, Canada and Australia were found medically disqualified for military service due to the effects of chronic malnutrition.

  • Yeah, don’t even get me started on the benefits of government funding for GMO research. Borlaug and all that.

  • The study you refer to purposely leaves out the fact the non religious are major supporters of big government to begin with.
    Which is hardly surprising as government serves as a substitute for religion and parallels with nihilism in this respect.

  • In addition the separation of church and state concept is just as it implies,it was never intended to work both ways as you claim.
    Since the Enlightenment all western governments were secular hence the reason to protect the church from cooption by the state.
    The idea that other religions and the non religious need protection from Christianity is fairly recent bullshit designed to encourage the ganging up against a major part of western cultural heritage for political purposes.
    And the so-called separation between church and state is not mentioned at all in the US constitution so it can’t have been regarded as important by the country’s founders.

  • So-called Christianity isn’t mentioned at all in the US constitution so it can’t have been regarded as important to the country’s founders because they saw the guarantee of the free exercise of religion as an adequate individual right. … see how easy that is? The point of saying that it works both ways is that you can’t have a government that respects the freedom of people’s conscience to hold whatever religious beliefs they choose without also having a neutral government that doesn’t compel adherence to any one group’s religious doctrines. Like, hypothetically, if America became a majority Muslim country the constitution wouldn’t allow a ban on sale and consumption of pork just because ‘Allah said so’. This is directly applicable to issues like freedom of expression, same-sex marriage, transgender rights, and women’s rights.

  • Brianna LaPoint

    Because every president has been and ever will be a christian i am convinced America has a serious religious problem. The problem is that most Americans arent willing to tolerate anything that doesnt belong to a church, reads a bible or worships a man named Jesus/Yeshua/ Joshua/Issah or any of the several Jesus sounding names out there. I would say let them fight it out, but when Christian politics interferes with day to day living something has to give.

  • Bruce Gorton

    In addition the separation of church and state concept is just as it implies,it was never intended to work both ways as you claim

    How wouldn’t it? The primary threat from church influencing state has always been that one religious denomination would then use its political power to dominate the others. It would logically have to work both ways, otherwise it wouldn’t work at all.

    And one should note that in the treaty of Tripoli the US government specifically stated that it was not founded on Christianity. This was signed in 1797, many of the same people involved in that were in fact the founding fathers (US independence was only declared in 1776). It passed unanimously, indicating exactly how much the founding fathers thought of your “major part of Western cultural heritage”.

    Of course “western cultural heritage” at the time was feudalism, and bowing to the king. The idea that they would value much of anything simply on the basis of it being some sort of cultural heritage stands starkly in contrast to the fact that the entire point to the revolution was to say “fuck that shit”, and saying so for political purpose. You cannot be both a conservative and a revolutionary – though you can be some flavour of authoritarian the very nature of conservatism is maintaining a status quo.

    And the entire point to the revolutionary war was that the status quo, namely “western cultural heritage” was not something the revolutionaries wanted to tolerate.

  • Are you serious? Of course I wasn’t referring to the feudal system as an example of western cultural heritage if anything it was the Magna Carta- much more than a charter but a constitution with it emphasis on individual rights which inspired classical liberalism.
    Provide an example where the church posed a threat to secular government rather than the other way round instead of rationalizing that it must work both ways.
    Whether the founders intended to preserve Christian heritage or not isn’t the point but the constitution guarantees citizens the freedom to practice their religion, nothing there about handing the role of equality enforcer of religions and non religion to government.
    The establishment clause more than likely refers to government not wanting to establish a state religion, a practice that was quite common in Europe at that time.

  • Sophotroph

    Well said!

  • the idea that other religions and the non-religious need protection from Chrristianity is fairly recent bullshit…

    What a stupid thing to say. For more than a thousand years the Christians murdered anybody who thought differently than them. Don’t believe in God? You’re burned alive. Don’t believe in transsubstantiation? You’re also burned alive. Teach a doctrine of the trinity that’s different from official dogma? We’ll drown you in a barrel. The history of Christendom is a history of dissenters being executed to enforce compliance with what the church wants you to believe.