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SCOTUS ruled that churches qualify for state money. Churches, beware.

For churches, state money can be a poison pill.

Ralph Reed, of the Faith and Freedom Coalition leads a rally in support of Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia, Missouri, in April
Ralph Reed, of the Faith and Freedom Coalition leads a rally in support of Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia, Missouri, in April
Mark Wilson / Getty

The Supreme Court has just ruled that it is unconstitutional for the state of Missouri to deny funds to a Lutheran church that wanted to make use of a state program with a secular purpose: encouraging the use of recycled material. The church had applied for a grant to have the costs for a new school playground partially reimbursed, but was denied because the state constitution forbade making payments to churches.

The Court came to the right conclusion, both constitutionally and ethically. But it’s an entirely different question whether churches should be participating in state-run programs like that one — when they consider their own self-interest.

Secularists worry that when federal or state money goes to churches, to support either charities or efforts like the one at stake in Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia v. Comer, the state is in effect promoting religion. But there’s growing evidence that the influence goes the other way: State support causes churches to become more secular, and generally to weaken.

In short, believers should be wary of the freedom the Court has just affirmed.

Nonetheless, we should not lose sight of the discriminatory nature of Missouri’s overturned policy. That discriminatory aspect becomes all the more clear when you look at its history. Missouri is one of 38 states with a so-called “Blaine Amendment,” which prohibits the state from giving any aid to parochial schools. Missouri’s amendment originated in the state constitution of 1875, which was then replaced in 1945, with the Blaine Amendment kept.

James G. Blaine was a Republican Congress member from Maine who led a failed effort to amend the US Constitution to forbid public money from going to religious schools. Despite his failure at the federal level, the movement he led greatly influenced the states.

The late-19th-century movement to keep public money out of parochial schools was sometimes driven by religious animus

The origins of that 1875 constitution should be embarrassing for Blaine Amendment supporters. At the time, Missouri was governed by a political coalition that, had Missouri been part of the Confederacy and subject to Reconstruction, we would today call a “Redeemer” government: It was made up of reactionary Democrats determined to roll back the advances made on behalf of African Americans since the Civil War. Thus, the 1875 constitution removed key features of the 1865 constitution, such as its prohibition of certain forms of racial discrimination by the government. The 1875 constitution could well and truly be called a Jim Crow constitution.

The Ku Klux Klan and its political fellow travelers of course directed the lion’s share of their hatred toward African Americans, but they reserved a portion of their fury for those they would tar papists (Roman Catholics) and groups often seen as crypto-papist, like Lutherans or Orthodox Christians. (In fairness, Lutherans also participated in bigotry against Roman Catholics.) No surprise, then, that Democratic governors from 1873 onward also made efforts to restrict certain kinds of education, by starving some (especially black) public schools of money, and, of course, by discriminating against Catholic and Lutheran schools.

Blaine himself was raised in an interfaith household, with a Catholic mother and a Presbyterian father. Whatever his personal sympathies, he was a presidential hopeful and wanted to solidify the Protestant vote for himself. After President Ulysses S. Grant proposed an amendment banning any support for parochial schools, Blaine took up the cause. The amendment failed at the federal level but was popular with the states.

While Reconstruction-era Republicans like Grant and Blaine also favored robust public education, Southern Democrats like those in Missouri saw an opportunity to persecute those drunken immigrant Catholics and Lutherans and restrict the growth of public expenditures. Political persecution of beer-swilling Germans and Irish by political Protestantism was nothing new at the time, and keeping their schools unfunded was key to the longstanding goal of converting Lutherans and Catholics to more truly American religions.

As late as the 1906 US Census of Religious Bodies, about 85 percent of Lutheran churches were bilingual or exclusively used a foreign language, and a series of wars with Germany did not help public perception of these ethnically foreign churches. Meanwhile, Catholicism remained a political question at least as late as JFK’s election.

It’s important to stress that a prohibition on parochial school support did not imply that public schools were secular — Grant famously condemned the “atheistic” tendencies of private schools as one of the justifications for free public schools. These would cure kids of their godless atheism by promoting “nonsectarian,” that is, approximately American Protestant, beliefs. No surprise then that the largest private school networks in the country were the Catholic, Lutheran, and Jewish school systems, as all three groups found preachy Yankee Congregationalists, pietistic Methodist teetotalers, and brimstone-bearing Baptists kind of annoying.

So the Blaine Amendment in Missouri originated in political, nativist Protestantism reacting against Catholic and Lutheran school systems, coinciding with the ascent of more aggressively white supremacist political factions.

The Supreme Court has affirmed that it’s not okay to exclude churches from generalized subsidy programs they otherwise qualify for

That is not the whole story, of course. In the intervening decades, Blaine Amendments in Missouri and other states have seen various modifications, allowing some public funds to ultimately flow toward religious education, especially for special needs students and for religious universities. And, thankfully, modern Americans don’t think of state non-support of parochial schools as a tool for keeping Catholics and Lutherans in their proper place.

But it is a bit disingenuous that anybody thinks state recycling subsidies would promote the Christian religion. Perhaps the Book of Hezekiah contains guidance on recycling? It’s also a bit odd that anybody thinks it’s okay to offer a generalized subsidy program to other schools, but then deny it just because a group is religious. The federal government routinely engages in partnerships with religious charities, as do non-Blaine states. The majority of refugees are resettled via religious charities, for example; oddly enough, the secular left rarely urges that we shut down those groups.

It is profoundly prejudiced, and a bit of a policy-effectiveness own goal, for a state to refuse to support otherwise socially desirable charitable or educational activities solely because they are carried out by religious organizations. Nor is it a good look on the government to say, in essence, “We won’t give you the money now, but renounce Christianity and proclaim yourself secular, and then we will.” Very few people think students at religious universities should be denied access to Pell Grants (vouchers!) or subsidized student loans, or academic research grants, even when those universities explicitly promote their faith and use faith-based standards for admission and enrollment.

Missouri’s new Republican governor, Eric Greitens, recognized the unfairness in how Missouri was treating religious organizations, calling that policy “prejudiced.” The Supreme Court has now affirmed that judgment, with seven justices making a simple but powerful point: The law should not discriminate between theists and nontheists, or between denominations, when providing benefits, programs, or services, period. If you can’t stomach a church (or a mosque) benefiting from a program, don’t have the program. This result presumably pushes the Blaine Amendment in Missouri’s Constitution one step closer to being a dead letter.

Churches should celebrate the Court’s decision, yet think hard about how they’ll act on it

But there’s a catch. Religious people and groups do deserve and are one step closer to receiving equal access to public programs, but if they are wise, they should avoid actually availing themselves of these programs in most cases. The experience of centuries has shown that far from sacralizing the state, public support of religious bodies secularizes the church.

An empty church
Research suggests that public support of churches leads to lower levels of church attendance.
Universal Images Group/Getty

There is abundant academic study and demonstration of the state-secularization model. Where there are established state churches, religious attendance is lower. Even in recent years, “deregulation” of religion has boosted religious participation, though not enough to offset a less religious cultural milieu. In colonial America, with its established, state-sponsored churches, just 18 percent of Americans were members of any church, and membership rose consistently until the 1970s; it remains well above 19th-century levels today.

Study of the 1996 welfare reform finds that government spending crowds out church giving by 20 to 38 percent. A study of several Western countries found that expansion of the welfare state largely explains the increase in secularization in recent years. Another study found that in European countries, compulsory schooling reduced religious expression even in countries with religious curriculum in public schools, like the United Kingdom.

But there’s a debate about what exactly is happening here. Does all government provision of benefits reduce religiosity? Or can some church-state partnership in public service provision benefit churches? That’s the classic worry of many secularists: that state support of religion will create religiosity, which might threaten the vital separation of conscience and state on which all peaceful pluralism depends.

However, a working paper released in February suggests that yes, indeed, government support secularizes religious practice, even very recently here in the United States. And the context is interesting, as it’s a study of state support of parochial schools via vouchers, an issue similar in its political meaning, if not in its practical details, to the Trinity case.

The authors of the study found that although an infusion of state money helped to prevent the closure of churches, “We fail to find evidence that vouchers promote religious behavior: voucher expansion causes significant declines in church donations and church spending on non-educational religious purposes” — that is, spending on missions, pastors, church social services, church maintenance, and so on. The effect of this crowding out is genuinely enormous: $230 million in voucher spending at Catholic schools in Milwaukee resulted in $60 million less in church donations, the authors found.

For secularists, voucher programs that help to prop up churches are very nearly the worst kind of church-state intimacy. For many advocates of religious education, meanwhile, state vouchers are seen as a solution to a whole host of problems — and, yes, as a way to promote religiosity. It turns out both sides may be wrong.

Strong government support for religion is a poison pill that offends the secular and defiles the sacred. It is true that denying a church the right to get the state to pay for its playground is mere prejudice written in law, which should be undone, if for no other reason than the appalling historical provenance of these laws. But it is also true that when a church becomes a client of the state, that church has bought itself a potter’s field.

The exact mechanism remains murky, but the broader moral of this story is very clear. For religious people in America, the optimal environment is a maximum of religious liberty — and minimum of state discrimination along religious lines — alongside voluntary avoidance of state support. From hospitals to schools to social welfare, when the state steps in, true religion is usually pushed out.

The secularization of Northern Europe offers a cautionary tale

We can see today the end result of public support for religion in countries like Norway. In that Scandinavian paradise of secular social democracy, between 57 percent and 82 percent of the population, depending on your source, is formally affiliated with a Christian denomination (including 76 percent with the Church of Norway, the state church), but only about 3 percent attend church. In the United States, only about 50 percent of the population is formally affiliated with a Christian denomination, substantially lower than in the Nordic countries, yet somewhere between 15 percent and 40 percent are weekly attendees at church, indicating far greater religiosity.

I have friends who have been parishioners at Trinity Lutheran, and it is preposterous to think that if Missouri helps pay for a playground, that will be the end of true faith there. A playground really is just a playground. But this is how it begins: first with a playground or two, then grants for instructional buildings, then church maintenance, then vouchers for tuition, then direct grants — and pretty soon you’re a public school. And, oh, by the way, the state of Missouri isn’t okay with your pastor preaching this or that teaching of the church anymore. Oh, you want to preach that anyway? Nice school you got there. Shame if anything should happen to it.

So if your end goal for American religion is Scandinavian secularism then, sure, go ahead, throw money at the churches. The road to the death of American religion may well be paved with taxpayer dollars.

Lyman Stone is an economist who blogs at In a State of Migration. He is an enthusiastic and confessing member of the Lutheran ChurchMissouri Synod, a theologically conservative Lutheran denomination; he was raised as, and in his beverage choices remains, a pietistic Methodist teetotaler. Lyman works as an agricultural economist at USDA. His views are not endorsed by, supported by, or in any way reflective of the US government.

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