Bible classes in high school? Health care in parochial schools? Chaplains in the senate? Such issues complicate the answer.

What shall we say about government support for the clergy, for churches, or for nonprofit religious organizations?

The question continually arises, first one issue coming to the fore, then another. By way of setting the stage, here are three examples:

• Federal budget director David Stockman believes that nonprofit religious organizations should pay the same postal rate as for-profit commercial firms. This adds up to a staggering increase.

• Social security taxes are usually split between employer and employee, but for workers who are self-employed a different amount is charged, and they pay it all. To avoid taxing churches, the government has for years treated ministers as self-employed, though they do not really fit that category. Now, with this tax rising one-third to 13.7 percent, a greatly increased burden is being placed on a group already at the bottom of the professional scale.

• A 1962 IRS ruling is about to be changed. Now, if a church gives its pastor a housing allowance, he can deduct it from his gross income. In addition, he can deduct the part of that allowance that pays his mortgage interest and taxes. A ruling to take effect July 1 will eliminate this second exemption, and perhaps cost the average minister an additional $1,000 annually.

It is not our purpose here to take a position on each of these matters. They are a mixed bag. But they call us to study out the larger question of government’s relation to religion on the issue of tax money.

Any attempt to get to the bottom of the problem means sorting out three separate issues that often intertwine in a most complex way. But both the evangelical Christian and Americans generally have too much at stake to shrug this off as too troublesome to consider.

1. Direct Government Support Of Religion?

The U.S. Constitution’s Bill of Rights did not originally rule out governmental support of religion at either the state or federal level. Some states continued for years to have church membership as a requirement for voting. Religion was directly supported in many ways. Even so-called free thinkers like Benjamin Franklin or deists like Thomas Jefferson supported religion and believed it necessary for the nation’s well-being. What the founding fathers opposed was the establishment of one particular religion such as the Anglican in Virginia, or Roman Catholic in Maryland, or Congregational in New England, or Dutch Reformed in New York. On the basis of neutrality toward all specific denominations, direct support of religion in general was deemed quite in order. Most states, for example, provided public support through taxes for private Christian schools.

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Across the years, however, a new position gradually emerged—not by legislative acts, but by court decisions. These decisions in effect changed the Constitution. They transformed the constitutional prohibition against the establishment of a particular church or religion into a prohibition against direct support for any religion. This placed the matter on a new basis, and our nation has never yet sorted out what it means in relations between government and church. Is the singing of Messiah by a public high school choir a direct support of religion? Or is a baccalaureate service at commencement, or the chaplaincy for the United States Senate, or a released time religion class in a public school building? The nation has tended through its courts to take an increasingly hard-nosed position on many of these issues. But the situation is extremely confusing and the logic is unclear that leads to approval in one case and prohibition in another. Why are Bible classes forbidden in public high schools but supported in public universities? Is the Senate chaplaincy acceptable while a baccalaureate service is not?

2. Indirect Support Of Religion?

Whatever we may conclude about direct government support of religion, indirect support raises quite a different issue. Some acts are obviously religious and also stimulate values not generally recognized as religious. The government could well be eager to support these values, but not be interested in supporting religion as such. For example, while government may not wish to support sectarian Christian schools, it strongly favors health care for young children, so it has generally financed health-care programs there. It supports these programs because it wishes to support not the religion of private Christian schools, but the health of its citizens in them.

In the last decade, schools have become increasingly concerned about “value” education. But moral instruction or value education cannot be realistically taught apart from a philosophical framework, whether Christian or Muslim, theistic or humanistic. Even if moral values are presented in purely cafeteria style with what is alleged to be absolute neutrality (an impossible condition), that in itself sets a framework of its own values. According to Christianity and the practices of most cultures, effective moral values are tied to an essentially religious framework (whether called that or not). Certainly religious sanctions provide powerful motivation in this area.

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But this leads to the hard question: Should a nation that regards moral and value education highly desirable for its citizens support the religious instruction that provides it, even though as a nation it would not wish to support religion directly? In the United States, we seem to be moving toward the awkward position that government will not support values in the framework of any traditional religion (Protestant, Catholic, or Jewish), but will support them in a humanist framework. Practically, this makes humanism an established religion—but everyone admits that such a religion is directly forbidden by the original intent and current interpretation of the Constitution.

Many actions of religious people done out of religious motivation and in part to support their own religion create values of immense significance to the state. No state can survive without these values, and religious (including Christian) people are providing them effectively and often at little expense to the government.

It is our conviction that we ought to encourage our government at every level to support such contributions from religious people. Of course, Christians have no right to demand such support just because they are Christians. But they may encourage the government to support their efforts to gain values desperately needed by any stable government preserving the welfare of all its citizens.

For example, Christians can justly argue that, to gain the advantage of an educated citizenry, government should use GI loans to support students at a Christian college, even though this indirectly supports Christian education. On the same ground, the government should underwrite health services for Christian schools and hospitals, busing, released time for Christian moral and value education, and even tuition for students at Christian schools below the college level. The aim of the government would not be to support the religious viewpoint represented, but to secure the values society treasures for all its citizens. The whole nation will be the better for it.

Of course, the government could not, on any valid interpretation of the Constitution, provide such support only for certain religions; that would violate the establishment clause. If it grants a housing allowance for clergy, it must do so because the moral and spiritual instruction by clergy makes our nation as a whole better, and it must grant it to all clergy.

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3. Religious Freedom

The relationship of government to religion is affected by another principle: free exercise of religion is guaranteed by our Constitution. Many arrangements in American society came into being not because government wished to support religion but because it refused to deprive its citizens of the right to that free exercise. The military chaplaincy is the clearest example of this. Citizens forced to serve in distant lands ought not to be deprived of their right to worship God in public, celebrate the Lord’s Supper, or secure instruction in moral and spiritual matters. The government has solved this dilemma by providing chaplains. In one sense, each represents his own religion. Indirectly, therefore, government is subsidizing religion through the chaplains. However, its aim is not to support the particular religion of the chaplain, for that would be unconstitutional.

Chaplaincies for legislative bodies and the religious ceremonies accompanying the swearing-in of a new president are also to be defended on the same basis. We are grateful for this delicate balance achieved in our pluralistic society between government and church. Many Americans fail to understand it. Due to their uninformed zeal to protect precious freedoms, they battle against every sign of what they see as an “entangling alliance” between government and religion. Americans United for the Separation of Church and State (which includes many evangelicals) and the American Civil Liberties Union believe this is the best way to guard our freedoms. Few in either of these groups are antireligious, or wish to destroy religion; rather, they fear that we may lose our liberties. Evangelicals should stand with them against any establishment of a particular religion—Roman Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, or humanistic. And unless we first convince them that we stand with them on this point, they are not likely to acknowledge that some indirect support of religion by the government is in the government’s best interest. With them, we must insist that costly vigilance and sacrificial action are essential if we are to safeguard religious freedom.

What the ACLU and Americans United do not see are the second and third principles we have enunciated: that total withdrawal of government from religion denies the religious rights of many Americans; and that some of their most treasured values as American citizens are reached more effectively through religious instruction and religious persuasion than by any other means. Our citizens would be poorer citizens, our government would be less desirable, our society would be impoverished were it not for such religious activity. Government should do this not to further a particular religion, or even religion in general. But it should encourage and indeed support such religious activities in its own self-interest, for the highest good of its citizens. For government to refuse such services only on the ground that they will indirectly support traditional religion amounts to an antireligious bias—a bias directly contrary to the Constitution.

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Evangelicals, therefore, join with all those of whatever religious (or irreligious) faith who are willing to devote themselves to preserving our liberties. But we also defend our right to practice our own religion without handicaps or special financial burdens. And we believe America desperately needs moral instruction and a renewal of those traditional values its people have shared with biblical Christianity. We therefore urge our nation to reinforce such values in every way it can—even when to do so may indirectly further religion—evangelical or otherwise.


E.T. phoned home, but will he (or any in his company) phone earth? That question is being considered by several major research groups. In coming months, we may hear more about a search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI). Comments will also surface about religion, and especially about orthodoxy.

Cornell University astronomer Carl Sagan (of “Cosmos” TV fame) has written an international SETI petition. It calls for concerted use of the existing technology of radio astronomy to detect signals from intelligent beings somewhere “out there.” Sagan’s petition has been signed by 72 other scientists, including Nobel laureates Francis Crick and Linus Pauling.

Harvard University’s Paul Horowitz has already begun a major SETI program, scanning 128,000 channels for signs of intelligent life. Now that American planetary exploration is declining, NASA will launch what may be the most elaborate SETI program of all to find evidence that human beings are not alone in the universe. Of course, failure to detect extraordinary radio signals would not incontrovertibly prove we are alone (there might be creatures vastly beyond range). But failure here would, Sagan writes, “tend to calibrate something of the rarity and preciousness of the human species.”

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Certain science fiction writers such as Arthur C. Clarke believe Christian orthodoxy is too narrow and timid for the brave new world. Clarke has said the doctrine of man made in the image of God is ticking like a time bomb at Christianity’s base, set to explode if other intelligent creatures are discovered.

However, when we say humans are made in God’s image, we are not denying that creatures in his image can exist in another world. And to say that we are fallen is not to say all other such creatures necessarily fell. The Bible, at any rate, concerns the human species, and we need not apologize that it addresses “only” humans. No time bomb ticks.

Sagan, on the other hand, writes, “We find ourselves, trembling just a little, on the threshold of a vast and awesome universe, rich in mystery and in promise, that utterly dwarfs—in time, in space, and in potential—the tidy anthropocentric world of our ancestors.”

We tremble with Sagan before a universe rich in mystery and promise. But was even the pre-Copernican universe as small to our ancestors as he suggests? And may not a first-century shepherd have considered the moon just as distant and unreachable as we now think another solar system to be? Sagan assumes that an appreciation of the sheer immensity of universe makes any religious faith seem inadequate. But men who have actually traveled in space—the astronauts—have returned to earth with heightened rather than diminished religious feelings.

Suppose there were men and women on earth who believed in reality beyond the physical universe, reality bursting with cherubim, seraphim, and archangels, a heaven and a hell. Suppose these same men and women on earth were scientifically enlightened—aware, for instance, that one galaxy 300,000 light-years in diameter contains 100 billion solar masses, and that the universe holds many such galaxies. These men and women ought to be reeling with wonder, affirming as they do that “all things seen and unseen” were created by one God.

Many twentieth-century evangelicals are such men and women. With Annie Dillard, let us lash ourselves to our pews. Creation proves to be ever more amazing, and the word “awe” regains meaning for the thunderstruck.


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