Hurricanes, fires, and mudslides are among the destructive forces that have struck the nation in recent months, leaving billions of dollars in damage and rebuilding work in their wake.
The question that presents for people of faith is whether they should look to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to help them recover.
A recent poll of evangelical leaders conducted by the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) said “yes” by an overwhelming margin of 97 percent. A story about the findings cited last year’s U.S. Supreme Court ruling that a government aid program must be available to all without regard to religious character.
In that case, the decision opened the way for a Lutheran church in Missouri to obtain a government grant to enhance its playground.
“Faith should be neither a qualifier nor a disqualifier for assistance, just as unbelief should be neither a qualifier or disqualifier,” said Scott Arbeiter, president of the NAE’s World Relief arm.
Last fall, three churches in the Houston area sued FEMA for disqualifying churches from applying for certain relief after Hurricane Harvey’s destruction.
While I can’t comment on the validity of this lawsuit, I think church folk who line up for government funds are overlooking the hazards that can easily accompany Uncle Sam’s money.
Now, in recent years, “separation of church and state” has become a whipping boy.
It gets taken to extremes by secularists who pretend that Christian influence in our nation’s founding doesn’t exist. On the other side are advocates of theocracy who see no dangers in mixing the two.
Yet, one has only to look at history to see the dangers of the church relying on the state for favored status.
Last summer, my brother toured Germany just prior to the 500th anniversary of the Reformation sparked by Martin Luther’s writings protesting Catholic Church practices.
My brother told me about churches that were lightly-attended but had plenty of staff, thanks to the “voluntary” tax contributions that went into church coffers.
Indeed, one can survey the church’s fading influence elsewhere across Europe to see that state support doesn’t guarantee a vibrant church.
Separating Church from State
Although not currently in a Southern Baptist church, my years in that denomination gave me a healthy appreciation for Baptists. Especially their practice of emphasizing the separation of church and state.
The #1 reason: to keep the state’s nose out of church business.
Among the stories of mischief that accompany state-favored status when it comes to churches is that of an historic Baptist congregation in Kentucky.
It was founded by a clergyman who had in essence previously been run out of Virginia for refusing to go along with the Episcopalian philosophy that held such sway in the East.
Another problem that many church folk fail to see is the loss of independence that accompanies state funding of any kind.
Inviting Uncle Sam to help rebuild churches is also risking oversight of church policies and practices—many at odds with the government’s approach.
The Rev. Jeremiah Wright took a lot of heat from conservative critics for some of his comments during the 2008 presidential election.
Still, Wright was on the money when it came to speaking out about the government when the church disagrees with Uncle Sam. Lose one’s independence by getting too close to the seat of power, and you lose the effectiveness of being able to speak to power.
Churches that seek Uncle Sam’s money to rebuild instead of relying on divine resources may ultimately regret the outcome.