When legislatures start to think and act like and fulfill the role of churches, and compete for citizens’ limited resources (our money), there is less of it left over for us to give to real churches.
When income taxes go up, there is less money for real churches.
When capital-gains taxes go up, there is less money for real churches.
When property taxes rise, there is less money for real churches.
And when estate taxes rise, there is less money for real churches.
Church giving is crowded out not just in real terms by all of those taxes, but in psychological terms too. Why bother giving what little disposable income I have, goes the thinking, when so much of my income is already earmarked for the poor?
Dennis Prager had this to say about the moral perils of big government:
Not only does bigger government teach people not to take care of themselves, it teaches them not to take of others. Smaller government is the primary reason Americans give more charity and volunteer more time per capita than do Europeans living in welfare states. Why take care of your fellow citizen, or even your family, when the government will do it for you?
Which brings me back to Professor Wolfe.
Those taxes we Americans pay are not voluntary, and many of us would prefer to give our money directly to real-life charities. Though we believe in a government social safety net, we also believe that churches work on hearts, minds, and souls in ways government programs can’t.
It is no accident that the churches of Europe emptied out over the past 30 years. As the bureaucratic state inexorably grew, the church shrank — and not by any one single decision, but by thousands upon thousands of incremental steps.
And make no mistake about it, much of what happened in Europe can happen to our churches in America as the bureaucratic state expands its powers and competes for resources.
And a diminished church would be more than a cultural problem for us in America. It would soon become a political one.
Alexis de Tocqueville understood this back in 1832 when he visited America to study our prison system. “Religion,” he wrote, “is much more necessary in democratic republics than in any others.” He added, “How is it possible that society should escape destruction if the moral tie is not strengthened in proportion as the political tie is relaxed?”
Churches don’t just help strengthen the moral ties of our nation. So integral were strong churches to our founders that they put the free-exercise clause in the First Amendment, right alongside the right to free speech. They did so because they knew that strong churches — along with a robust press — were vital counterbalances to government power.
Indeed, in this country’s history, church leaders have used their moral power to challenge the laws of the land, from the rights of racial minorities to the rights of the unborn.
In what may be the most beautiful piece of writing in the 20th century, the Reverend Martin Luther King’s “Letter From Birmingham Jail” dealt with the difficulty of squaring an unjust law of man (segregation) with the laws of God. He wrote this:
A just law is a man made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law.
It is no accident that church leaders across the country are worried about the ever-expanding government apparatus. That worry is creeping into the pulpit, as more and more pastors fear government retaliation for expressing their views. Worse, the government is now in the business of compelling religious ministries and citizens to buy health coverage to which they object as a matter of conscience and religious principle.
This kind of government overreach should worry all people who care about religion. But even people who don’t like religion should be worried about the ever-increasing role of government in our lives.
Because a government that can crowd out the church can crowd out everything else.
— Lee Habeeb is the vice president of content at Salem Radio Network, which syndicates Bill Bennett, Mike Gallagher, Dennis Prager, Michael Medved, and Hugh Hewitt.