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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.”

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FOR INFERNAL USE ONLY Jack Matirko was raised in the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, but it didn't take. His projects include The Left Hemispheres Podcast, The Naked Diner Podcast, and An Ongoing and...