Politics & Policy

God, Mammon, and Leviathan

The bigger the government, the smaller the church.

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.

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. 

Lee HabeebLee Habeeb is an American talk-radio executive and producer. He has written columns for USA Today and the Washington Examiner, and is a columnist for Townhall.com and National Review.


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