Despite the fact that religion plays an important role in the lives of Americans, everyone benefits from the separation of church and state that is afforded by the Constitution, a religion professor and a Christian agency representative told students at a discussion on religion and politics Wednesday.
Ron Flowers, emeritus professor of religion, and guest speaker Stephen Reeves, legislative counsel for the Christian Life Commission, spoke about the dangers of blending religion and politics in an intimate gathering of about a dozen students in Robert Carr Chapel.
A Pew Research Institute Survey released just before the 2008 election found an increasing number of Americans are questioning the role of religion in politics, and both speakers said the change was encouraging,
“I would love to say that it was because of great principles and moral values and the like,” Flowers said. “But I think it’s because the IRS is breathing down their neck.”
Flowers said the Internal Revenue Service can become a problem for a church if the church openly supports a political candidate because it jeopardizes the tax exemptions that are afforded to churches and charitable organizations.
Both speakers said they felt that some Christians underestimate the benefits of secularization.
“The idea of the separation of church and state as being hostile to religion could not be more wrong,” Flowers said. “Rather, it is designed to allow religion to flourish.”
Flowers pointed to the churches of Europe, which he said are funded with tax dollars, as an example of why secularization is key to the success of religious organizations.
“They have lower attendance rates and less income coming in because people feel that they have already done their part with their tax dollars,” he said.
Reeves, who is an adviser to the Baptist General Convention of Texas, said even though the increasing tendency to mix religion in government and politics is bad for the country, it is even more detrimental to churches.
Reeves said partnerships between church-based charitable organizations have existed for 100 years or more, but the 2001 faith-based initiatives removed some important safeguards that were designed to protect both government and religious organizations.
The initiatives, which effectively rewrote the laws pertaining to government funding of faith-based charities, were a major issue during President George W. Bush’s 2000 campaign and were signed into law via an executive order during his first year in office.
Reeves said it was unfortunate that church-based charities were being used as a political tool and that all the faith-based initiative conferences were held in swing states.
“One of the major changes we saw with the initiatives is that religious organizations are no longer required to set up a separate 501c3 to accept government funds,” Reeves said.
The 501c3 tax exemption is a status afforded to churches and organizations for the greater good, such as charities, museums and universities.
The changes in law cause serious problems for both church and state, Reeves said.
“On one hand, for the church, they now have government eyes following the government money into places they didn’t have a right to before,” he said. “The other side of that is if no eyes are following it then you could have that money being spent on inherently religious projects, and I don’t think that is right either.”