Government’s Corruption of Religion

Ohio’s controversial state motto, adopted in the late 1950s, is Christ’s teaching that “With God, all things are possible” (Matthew 19:26). In arguing to have the motto inscribed on a plaza in front of the Ohio Statehouse, some people said the absence of religion contributes to immorality and disrespect for law in society.

They ignore the fact that governmental involvement with religion has a history of corrupting both religion and morality. This history is a significant reason why the U.S. Constitution separates government from religion.

James Madison, who is considered the “Father of the Constitution,” asserted in 1785 that the fruits of governmental establishments of religion have been “[m]ore or less in all places, pride and indolence in the Clergy, ignorance and servility in the laity, [and] in both, superstition, bigotry and persecution.” He also said, “Religion is not helped by establishment, but is hurt by it.”

Madison and most of the other founders knew that previous governments had destroyed religious freedom by suppressing minority religions, instigated bloodbaths and other vicious disputes over whose religion would receive governmental support, propped up corrupt and tyrannical religions that people would no longer voluntarily support, and caused talented members of minority religions to emigrate to escape religious persecution or other mistreatment relegating them to second-class citizenship.

Governments also proved to be totally incompetent judges of religious claims, profaned religions by using them for sordid political purposes, eliminated the independence of religions by dominating them or making them reliant on governmental aid, secularized and trivialized religions by separating them from their theological substance, and caused some people to view religion as a weak and ineffectual force that could not survive without state subsidization.

In view of the track record of governmental involvement with religion, the American Civil Liberties Union’s opposition to that involvement, as in the case of the Ohio motto, is probably one of the biggest favors anyone could do for religion.

Additionally, the history of government’s mismanagement of religion might be why Christ also said, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Mark 12:17). Many Christians interpret this teaching as supporting church-state separation.

By 1819, when the American experiment with church-state separation was well under way, Madison was able to observe: “[T]he number, the industry and the morality of the priesthood, and the devotion of the people have been manifestly increased by the total separation of the church and state.” He added in 1822: “Religion flourishes in greater purity without than with the aid of government.”

Undoubtedly, those results were a reason that the example of the federal government was followed by the states that still had governmental establishments of religion when the U.S. was founded. All of them eventually eliminated their establishments by separating church and state. Massachusetts was the last to do so in 1833. New states also provided for separation of government and religion.

The Ohio Supreme Court recognized in the nineteenth century what many current Ohio officials apparently never learned: religion is better off without government’s support. In the 1872 case of Board of Education of Cincinnati v. Minor, the court rejected a challenge to the Cincinnati school board’s ban on Bible reading in public schools. The ban had been issued after Catholic parents complained about the use of the King James Bible.

In upholding the board’s policy, the court explained: “United with government, religion never rises above the merest superstition; united with religion, government never rises above the merest despotism; and all history shows us that the more widely and completely they are separated, the better it is for both.”

Likewise, in the 1962 case of Engel v. Vitale, Justice Hugo Black wrote on behalf of the U.S. Supreme Court that “a union of government and religion tends to destroy government and to degrade religion.”

A similar – but more cynical – view was expressed by George Carlin: “I’m completely in favor of the separation of church and state. My idea is that these two institutions screw us up enough on their own, so both together is certain death.”

Abraham Lincoln said the role of government is to do for the people what they need to have done and either cannot do for themselves or cannot do as well on their own. History demonstrates that people can take care of religious matters on their own, and they do it much better without government’s involvement.

As the Ohio Supreme Court also said in the 1872 case: “The great bulk of human affairs and human interests is left by any free government to individual enterprise and individual action. Religion is eminently one of these interests, lying outside the true and legitimate province of government.”

We would be wise to oppose the attempts of politicians to manage religion. It is a role government has seriously botched too many times in the past.