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East/West: United States Ponders Wall Between Church And State

  • Don Hill

One of George W. Bush's first acts as U.S. president has been to establish an Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. The purpose is to support religious organizations in those activities that provide aid and humanitarian services, but the office has reopened a 200-year-old debate in the United States on what should be the proper relationship between religion and government. RFE/RL correspondent Don Hill explains how the relatively strict separation between "church and state" developed in the United States, and contrasts this with the situation in much of Europe, where governments tend to take a more active role in religious affairs.

Prague, 23 February 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The first words of the U.S. Constitution's Bill of Rights are these: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion..."

The words are generally understood to mean that Congress -- and, by extension, any local government or federal agency -- is prohibited from supporting a religious enterprise.

To many U.S. citizens, including judges and constitutional scholars, this means that governments at all levels must build an impenetrable wall between themselves and all religious matters. The name they use for this wall is the phrase, "separation of church and state."

Joseph Conn, editor of "Church and State Magazine", published by Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, put it this way in an interview:

"Americans believe that separation of church and state is one of the cardinal principles of our way of life."

To the U.S. administration of President George W. Bush and many Christians who support Bush, the writers of the Constitution clearly did not intend for the wall to be either so high or so solid as to require governments to ignore religious institutions entirely.

Now, President Bush has created an agency in the White House called the Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. The office opened this month (20 February) and the very idea on which it is based has reignited a U.S. debate that goes back to the 18th century and the country's founding fathers.

To Europeans and citizens of nations in transition from communism, the U.S. controversy over allowing religious organizations to receive government funds for social services must seem strange indeed. In many European nations, it is common practice for governments to distribute tax funds among various qualifying religious denominations.

In communist times, some countries effectively outlawed religious organizations. Communist Albania, for example, had what amounted to an established religion -- atheism, that is outright denial of the existence of god. In other countries, governments strictly controlled religious observances. In the Soviet Union government bureaus controlled appointments of priests, rabbis, and imams, and decreed what buildings could be used for religious services.

In present-day Communist China those religions not forbidden are strictly controlled in just this way.

In the Czech Republic, for example, governments have paid the salaries of the clergy of the principal recognized religious bodies since the days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. That arrangement seems to enjoy widespread acceptance by the population, even as many Czechs describe themselves as non-religious or non-believers.

Ironically, one of the most outspoken advocates of religious independence from government in the Czech Republic is a Christian religious organization, the Seventh-Day Adventists. Pastor Karel Nowak of the denomination told RFE/RL recently that his church rejects payment of salaries by the state:

"If we accept state money, we have some kind of obligation toward the government."

But even the Seventh-Day Adventists are openly willing to receive government financial support for their social good deeds -- the basis of George Bush's new faith office in the United States. In fact, Pastor Nowak says it's only right that when his group provides social services -- such as a home for the elderly -- that the government pay the cost.

Thus, Europeans and people in the former Soviet Union are generally more inclined to believe governments should pay for social services, even those provided by religious -- that is, faith-based -- groups. Only a few openly question the custom of government tax collectors collecting revenue for paying clergy salaries and operating costs.

The U.S. attitude -- extreme to many Europeans -- has its roots in the nation's colonial history. England for centuries had established the Anglican Church as the state religion. Many of the early settlers in North America came to the New World to escape what they felt was religious persecution.

Once there, some of these settlers promptly established their own version of religion and persecuted anyone whose views differed from theirs.

So when early U.S. leaders amended the Constitution to include what came to be called "the Bill of Rights," their First Amendment clearly spelled out that Congress would not pass laws on religion. It was a reaction to their past experiences with government-imposed faith.

The problems have arisen from interpretation of this injunction. "Church and State Magazine" editor Joseph Conn says:

"The vast majority of Americans believe in freedom of religions. We don't want the government telling us when to go to church, how to pray, or much money to give to the church."

But news reports from the United States do not indicate any great surge of opposition to the Bush proposal for allowing churches to use government funds for good works in society. Our correspondent asked Joseph Conn why not.

"I think most churches take the view that they don't want to be depicted as opposing the president's initiative. They tend to be conservative when it comes to some kinds of political involvement, and they don't want to appear to be opposing this president who has recently taken office."

But Conn said he believes many churches and other organizations are worried that rules and regulations will necessarily follow from any payouts received from the government. He said the fear is that this may someday amount to amalgamating churches and the government bureaucracy until it will be difficult to tell the difference.

He said citizens of the United States make up one of the world's most religiously involved populations, in large measure because the government has not tried to impose -- or regulate -- religious activity.

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