My wife sent along this article detailing a fraudulent “church” moving from state to state under different names, selling mail-order theological degrees, bilking creditors, abusing tax-exempt status, and even engaging in human trafficking. Yech.

But bigger than the story itself is the specter it raises of increased state oversight of religion. As abuses of religious tax exemption like this proliferate, the informal truce between the IRS (to begin with) and religious organizes starts to break down. For longstanding cultural and prudential reasons, the US and most state governments are relatively easy on churches, declining to audit nearly as often as they could, more or less respecting the autonomy of religious organizations. I tend to think there is a national feeling that religion is, on the whole, a social good, even if it’s all hooey. So the state leaves churches (and other religious organizations) alone. (I can’t find statistics on how many religious organizations are audited each year as a percentage of all religious organizations. Anyone have a pointer?) Despite the scary 1970s and 80s books and pamphlets I grew up with, religious freedom is mostly just fine, a bit like gun rights. The recent overturning of McCain-Feingold will probably serve to protect churches which engage in political speech. But if rank abuses of these freedoms by charlatans continue, do they not threaten to end this laxity? Already, financial pressures threaten tax exemption in some states. If there are many more troublemakers like the Syro Byzantine Catholic Church (or whatever it is at the moment), it could become much more difficult and expensive to run (or donate to) a church in the United States.

Even bigger than that is the way it exposes one weakness of American religious pluralism. The relatively great liberty afforded to American churches informally depends on their not abusing that liberty. And I think, on the whole, that they are good about it. Horror stories arise, and some churches at some times engage in institutional cover-ups, but zillions of congregations and denominations in America are well-behaved (if often heterodox).

There is no official relationship between church and state in the United States. The US Constitution explicitly prohibits the establishment of a national church (though it does not, despite Jefferson’s claim, impose a “high wall of separation” between church and state). Shortly after the ratification of the Federal Constitution, those states which still had official churches disestablished them. But in spite of the official godlessness, the United States was for its first 150 or so years basically an orthodox Protestant country. That self-understanding (with all its attendant blessings and problems) undergirded our sense of identity and destiny as a nation. The cultural memory of the nation reached back well beyond the Treaty of Tripoli to 17th century Whiggery; religiously tolerant, within bounds – and Catholicism was out of bounds. (This is the reason why my denomination’s Covenant of 1871 pledged participation in the nation’s public schools: Catholic parochial schools were the only significant alternative. Catholic separatism was both unbiblical and un-American. Covenanters were no longer outsiders; despite remaining shreds of political dissent they viewed this country as their possession along with other historic Protestants.)

In a paper read a few weeks ago at the Westminster Conference, William Edgar says, “For much of our history, indeed, an informal Protestant establishment of the once mainline churches continued our colonial legacy of a generally Christian public life. But in the last half century, that establishment has failed decisively, and it is now often a strong proponent of ever more startling denials of godly ethics in American life.” Edgar points out that the Supreme Court of the United States will soon contain no Protestants at all, only Jews and Catholics. That is not itself a cause for mourning, but it does reflect that an important change is taking place.

I am not into grand stories of progress or decline, but there are plenty of signs that the old relationship between liberal (in the good sense) Christianity and the public culture of the United States is petering out. What we thought was religious pluralism was simply a benevolent multi-denominational Christian hegemony; its death will mean not a pluralist utopia, but the ascendancy of some other public ethics. To say the least, that is not something to look forward to.

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