The founders’ faith

BROOKE ALLEN is the author of the just published "Moral Minority: Our Skeptical Founding Fathers."

RELIGIOUS organizations throughout the country are accorded countless exemptions from taxes and federal regulations. A New York Times article this month claimed that since 1989, more than 200 such special arrangements, protections and exemptions have been included in congressional legislation and endorsed by politicians of both major parties. The practice of regulatory exemptions and tax breaks for churches and religious groups gained momentum under President Clinton and has greatly accelerated under President Bush, who has tried through his faith-based initiative to create new legal precedents for such advantages and to make religious groups eligible for numerous state and federal grants and contracts.

Supporters of the Bush initiative have vigorously denied that its programs contradict the principles of church/state separation laid out in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. Former Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) has said that society “treats Christianity like a second-rate superstition,” and House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) insists that “radical courts have attempted to gut our religious freedom and redefine the value system on which America was built.”

The people who really did build this nation most definitely did not define “religious freedom” as the right of churches or other religious groups to benefit from taxpayer dollars. In fact, James Madison, the thinker who probably contributed more than any other to the legal foundations of our nation and who is frequently referred to as the father of the Constitution, was unambiguous on the subject.

First of all, he thought the idea of a church -- any church -- acquiring property and wealth to be directly contradictory to the principles of the Constitution. In his “Detached Memoranda,” a collection of private reflections, Madison warned against “the danger of a direct mixture of Religion & civil Government” as well as “an evil which ought to be guarded ag[ain]st in the indefinite accumulation of property from the capacity of holding it in perpetuity by ecclesiastical corporations.... Are the U.S. duly awake to the tendency of the precedents they are establishing, in the multiplied incorporations of Religious Congregations with the faculty of acquiring & holding property real as well as personal?”


In 1811, President Madison vetoed two bills, one incorporating an Episcopal church in the District of Columbia, the other reserving government land in the Mississippi territory for a Baptist church. The published veto for the Mississippi case states his position firmly: “Because the bill in reserving a certain parcel of land of the United States for the use of said Baptist Church comprises a principle and precedent for the appropriation of funds of the United States for the use and support of religious societies, contrary to the article of the Constitution which declares that ‘Congress shall make no law respecting a religious establishment’ [sic].”

Here we have Madison’s clear opinion that “the appropriation of funds of the United States” -- taxpayer dollars, to put it in today’s parlance -- to pay “for the use and support of religious societies” goes against constitutional principles.

Further, in a direct swipe at what people today would call faith-based initiatives, Madison stated his objection even to governmental sanction and support of a church’s charitable activities. “Because the Bill vests in the said incorporated Church,” he said, “an authority to provide for the support of the poor, and the education of poor children of the same; an authority, which being altogether superfluous if the provision is to be the result of pious charity, would be a precident [sic] for giving to religious Societies as such, a legal agency in carrying into effect a public and civil duty.”

He did not approve, in other words, of churches and religious societies being given a “legal agency” (including taxpayer funds) to carry into effect “a public and civil duty.” The public weal is the responsibility of the government itself, funded through taxation. Any charitable work churches might undertake is “pious charity,” and as such a voluntary act on the part of church members.

Supporters of the faith-based initiative point out, with justice, the many wonderful charitable programs religious groups have provided, and some of them accuse separationists of waging a war against religion. This distorts the argument severely.

Separationists are not attacking religion. They are merely reminding us that religion and church membership, under our Constitution, are defined as voluntary -- the general population cannot be compelled to underwrite any particular church. That is what freedom of religion means.