God, Mammon, and Leviathan
The bigger the government, the smaller the church.


Lee Habeeb

It was news to people in the news business. Back in late August, a study released by the Chronicle of Philanthropy revealed that residents in states where religious participation is higher than the rest of the nation, especially in the South, gave the greatest percentage of   discretionary income to charity.

The same study, which was based on 2008 IRS records, found that states with the fewest religious residents are the stingiest about giving to charity.

To which many Americans responded, “You needed a study to figure that out?” And just as many Americans said, “That’s news?”

Here were just a few of the headlines back on August 20, 2012:

Huffington Post: “More Religious States Give More To Charity.” CNN: “Religious states more charitable than non-religious states.” CBS News: “Study: Less religious states give less to charity.”

Then came the story by AP reporter Jay Lindsay. After citing some of the data, the reporter asked a professor to make sense of the new study for those of us not smart enough to make sense of it by ourselves.

That’s the when the reporting turned into an editorial:

Alan Wolfe, a political science professor at Boston College, said it’s wrong to link a state’s religious makeup with its generosity. People in less religious states are giving in a different way by being more willing to pay higher taxes so the government can equitably distribute superior benefits, Wolfe said.

Higher taxes are a form of giving? Was the good professor serious? If so, could he show me even one citizen in one of those high-tax states who gave more than the government ordered him to?

But the reporter and the professor weren’t finished:

Wolfe said people in less religious states “view the tax money they’re paying not as something that’s forced upon them, but as a recognition that they belong with everyone else, that they’re citizens in the common good. . . . I think people here believe that when they pay their taxes, they’re being altruistic.”

There you have it, folks; paying higher taxes is an act of altruism. It is an act of charity.

That’s right. Voluntarily giving to a church or the Red Cross or the Salvation Army is the same as having your taxes withheld from your paycheck compulsorily — with threat of legal sanction if you fail to pony up.

Whether they knew it or not, though, the reporter and the professor provided a great public service with those quotes, because many on the left actually think the way they do. They believe that if we only taxed Americans more, the government could better tackle the problems of our society.

Or as the good professor so eloquently put it, the government could “more equitably deliver superior benefits.”

That’s what we all think when we think of government services: superior benefits!

Without knowing it, what Professor Wolfe was really admitting to the AP was this: The government has a kind of quasi-religious status to many on the left. Government, for them, is the institution best situated to solve our nation’s toughest social and spiritual problems. For many on the left who have no religion, Wolfe seemed to be saying, government is their charity. Government is their . . . religion.

G. K. Chesterton is often quoted, somewhat imprecisely, as having said, “When people stop believing in God, they don’t believe in nothing — they believe in anything.”

But how many Americans really believe that all of the federal programs launched since the Great Society worked? Or that the welfare state created by well-intentioned liberals made things better for the people stuck in housing projects in New York City and Detroit, and stuck in even worse public-school systems?

Many Americans believe that much of the money spent on public programs — and raised through the taxing power of federal, state, and local governments — made things worse for the poor. An entitlement society was created that separated personal conduct from personal responsibility, and led to the evisceration of the most important social program ever invented — the family.

In a column back in February of 2010 on NRO, Dennis Prager made the profound observation that as government grows, the citizen shrinks. “The bigger the government, the smaller the citizen,” he wrote in what may have been the best column of that year.

But there is a corollary to that argument: The bigger the government, the smaller the church.