Adubious new angel has appeared on the American religious scene: the Treasurer of the United States. Last year, while churchgoers put about $6.5 billion in the Sunday offering plate, government agencies dangled an additional $6 billion before religious institutions. Churches grabbed up public funds at a record pace. As one newspaper editorial put it, “churches find it difficult to refuse available money.”

No one knows how much of that $6 billion in public money actually goes into religious treasuries. The figure is merely a congressional expert’s estimate of the annual value of government programs for which churches, as well as non-religious groups, can now apply. But the size of the estimate—amounting to almost as much as the churches raise for themselves in voluntary contributions—reflects the significant change in the American church-state relationship.

Government officials aren’t saying much, though they readily concede that a dramatic turnabout has taken place. Anti-poverty chief Sargent Shriver reported in December, 1965, that “hundreds of direct grants” had already gone to religious groups, whereas three or four years before it had been “practically impossible for a federal agency to give a direct grant to a religious group.” Today there are so many federal programs in which churches can participate that even researchers can’t keep tab. Last fall the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs came up with a single-spaced list stretching across thirty-two legal-size pages. Compilers stressed it was not exhaustive.

Major Shift

Historically, religious activity in the United States has been financed almost entirely through voluntary contributions. Church-state separation was a great American experiment. Churches thrived under ...

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