church state separation donald trump politics
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This is how the Trump administration, in broad daylight, is sidestepping the U.S. Constitution’s intended separation of church and state.

Even a prominent evangelical publication, Christianity Today, has noticed and in an op-ed this spring starkly warned its readers to be wary of accepting government handouts under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, which Congress passed this year and President Trump signed on March 27.

church state separation donald trump politics
The Bible and American flag. (Denis, Adobe Stock)

The summary wording of the act (below) sounds innocent enough:

“To provide emergency assistance and health care response for individuals, families, and businesses affected by the 2020 coronavirus pandemic.”

But, in fact, it’s anything but innocent, by allowing a significant chunk of the staggering $2 trillion in authorized relief spending under the act to go to churches and other nonprofit religious organizations.

This decision to grant religious nonprofits with federal taxpayer dollars amounts to a bailout of churches and other houses of worship unlike anything ever seen in US history,” writes Mike Kuhlenbeck in the new July/August edition of The Humanist magazine.

Before passage of the CARES Act, the U.S. Small Business Agency (SBA) disallowed government loans to American businesses and organizations that were “principally engaged in teaching, instructing, counseling or indoctrinating religion or religious beliefs, whether in a religious or secular setting,” Kuhlenbeck reports. However, the new act expands eligibility to “any business concern, private nonprofit organization, or public nonprofit organization which employs not more than 500 people,” and, thus, not excluding “the funneling of money to churches and houses of worship,” he writes.

Of the total CARES package, $376 billion is allocated to help U.S. small businesses and workers through loans administered by the SBA that can be tantamount to grants if they are ultimately forgiven under rules of the legislation.

In his Christianity Today op-ed, Jon Costas, a former mayor of Valparaiso, Indiana, and a local Christian pastor, presents a dim view of religious entities taking money from the CARES program, on either practical or moral terms.

“A large and prosperous church that takes a subsidy of $300,000 because their giving is down 15 percent may be making it more difficult for smaller inner-city churches whose finances are devastated and need the funds just to survive. It could also jeopardize the fates of many small businesses too. I have done some very rough calculations and it’s quite possible that if most churches take advantage of PPP loans, it could easily capture one third of the entire $350 billion allocation.”

Putting aside possible Christian moral and ethical considerations, though, the more essential question is why the Trump administration saw fit in the first place to include churches and religious nonprofits among those eligible for government largesse. Surely they know that the Founding Fathers intended, and the Constitution underscores, that the federal government be completely separate from governance, much less have any business whatsoever funding anything of a religious nature.

The legislation is manifestly an unconstitutional end-run around the Constitution.

Andrew Seidel, strategic response director for the Freedom From Religion Foundation and author of The Founding Myth: Why Christian Nationalism is Un-American, as quoted in The Humanist article reminds us of some telling historical context undermining the assumed legality of CARES.

Seidel cites the “Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom” drafted by Thomas Jefferson and passed by the Virginia General Assembly in 1786 as a seminal precursor to the Constitution’s First Amendment:

“This landmark text reads, in part, ‘to compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions, which he disbelieves is sinful and tyrannical …’” Seidel told the magazine. “One of the core founding values of this country is that coercive taxing power of the government cannot be wielded to force citizens to support a religion that is not their own.”

But that’s exactly what CARES does when directing tax funds to religious entities.

Seidel warns that CARES gives the president “a tool, a weapon six months before the 2020 election that is incredibly powerful.”

Aping the Christian Right’s dream of birthing a U.S. theocracy, Trump on June 2 signed the “International Religious Freedom” executive order that “propagates the myth that the U.S. was founded on religious grounds rather than a secular foundation,” stating, as Kuhlenbeck reported:

 “[The] Founders understood religious freedom not as a creation of the state, but as a gift of God to every person and a right that is fundamental for the flourishing of our society.”

Fake news and fake history.

Kuhlenbeck said it’s difficult to substantiate how much CARES money is going to religious entities, but “information has surfaced” about money going to the uber-wealthy Catholic Church. According to data reported, reported by the Washington Post, he writes, about 13,000 of 17,000 U.S. parishes have applied for CARES funding, and disbursements for 9,000 of them were granted totaling $1.45 billion in taxpayer largesse.

Casey Brinck, the Secular Coalition of America’s policy and government affairs director, said secularists have two main concerns about how CARES funding is being handled. One, it allows taxes to be used “to proselytize the masses” and subsidize religious practices, and, two, that the dubious religion-friendly funding policy will be officially continued in the future.

And the act is not just benefitting churches and religious organizations, but also private faith schools and tax-funding of tuition for students of religious schools by using “vouchers” and “scholarships.” (See my post in May about how Secretary of Education Betsy Devos is misusing CARES funding for religious schooling.)

This is how a proto-theocracy disingenuously embeds in a republic while hiding in plain sight.

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Rick Snedeker

Rick Snedeker is a retired American journalist/editor who now writes in various media and pens nonfiction books. He has received nine past top South Dakota state awards for newspaper column, editorial,...