Church and State

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof . . .”

So begins the Bill of Rights. In 1789, this “Establishment Clause” was understood to mean simply that Congress could not establish a federal religion – a protection for states, individuals, and local governments. Funny how people understood words as they were meant back then. There were no dissidents rallying Philadelphians to ban prayer from the schools. In fact, back then, it was the religious institutions that were creating and supporting the schools. Nearly a century later, Laura Ingalls attended school in Walnut Grove’s church.

To argue that the Founders really meant an absolute segregation, scholars like to cite a Thomas Jefferson letter where he describes a wall between church and state. Put this one letter against Jefferson’s life work promoting small and local government. Would Jefferson, who viewed the federal government as a necessary evil, have preferred that Washington or the local school board decide whether to allow prayer in school?

It took 170 years for school prayer to be questioned by our highest court. Like most other things that are not in the Constitution and yet are somehow constitutional, the ultimate separation of church and state was imposed on the country through one of the Supreme Court’s many overly broad interpretations of the 1865 amendments meant to end slavery. But that’s another story.

Most of our local schools were eventually put in the same position. Some resident, with evident aspirations to become the most popular person in the school district, threatened to bring suit unless the school stopped having a Bible class. This invariably caused the expense of building and maintaining a separate facility and walking the kids through weather to participate in the same classes anyway.

Thinking back on my school days, I don’t remember any specific prayer or Bible class. I just remember that, like Christmas plays and fiestadas, they were part of it. And none of it hurt anyone. (Maybe the fiestadas did.) Eventually, we all grew up infinitely more influenced by the other 99.9% of our lives. Prayer was an introduction to basic meditative contemplation and Bible classes were an introduction to religion, which, even if your family is atheist, helps you understand the people around you. No life was made or broken in those brief intermingles of church and state.

I’m no expert on the desirable metrics to rate a society and statistics can be used to mean anything. But those my age and older know that there was a time when family and community had a different feel than it does today. I’ll let those who propose that we are better off the more secular we make things present that argument, but whenever I’ve heard that argument it never seems to originate from any disposition resembling joy. [The full page ad in response to this article, for example, may have been the most joyless opinion expressed in the paper that year!]

And the group with the least glee seem to be those that should be the most satisfied of all – those perpetually receiving something for nothing. These somethings are entitlements such as food stamps, housing assistance, SSI, Medicaid and every other government program that is paid for by someone other than the recipient.

The Great Society of Lyndon Johnson and the government’s efforts since to solve every human problem usurped one of the traditional roles of the church – the charitable transaction. The separation of church and state was violated by the state. The government assumed the duty of taking money from where it could be found and giving it to whoever might desire it. The transaction, over fifty years, has become faceless. When Millennials now chant for free college, it is not a consideration that the money to pay for it would be forcibly taken from someone else – at the current rate, it would be taken from the children they haven’t thought of having yet.

When there are food drives, the people least likely to donate are the people who administer food stamp programs because they know that there is no hungry person in the country that is so for any other reason than irresponsibility. Show me a hungry child and I’ll show you a neglectful parent. No additional money can fix that. What can fix that is a reduction in entitlements and a concurrent rebuilding of the charitable community.

Politicians claim that the national debt can’t be fixed because of entitlements. Unfortunately, it has to be fixed or it will be automatically fixed for us when our credit runs dry. Unfunded entitlement programs have to be reduced. If they were reduced 25%, there is a way to fill the gap – restore the traditional roles of non-profit charities such as church organizations. (This does not include Social Security or Medicare which are funded by the recipient.)

A recipient of a reduced entitlement could designate a non-profit organization to be their payee. My guess is that if they designated a local church, it would provide the payee with additional support to close the gap. Better, the recipient would naturally be drawn into an orbit where their over-all life would improve. Is there a worse idea than placing free money into the unrestricted management of someone who cannot manage their life in a way that would eliminate the need for the free money?

Volunteers could help make sure children are fed properly and that supplemental work is available. The non-profits would receive no compensation, it would simply be, as always before, their mission. An entitlement recipient would not have to designate a non-profit, but they would receive less than the 75% directly. The intermingling of church and state would be voluntary. Secular organizations could be designated as well if they could find sufficient funding and volunteers.

Inarguably, there is a deterioration in our society with the disappearance of the charitable transaction where the giver gets the satisfaction of providing direct aid and the recipient sees a face and says “Thanks”. That has been replaced with mutual resentment. There would be fewer street demonstrations and less anger (and less debt) should the charitable transaction be reborn and unfunded entitlements reduced.