Tearing Down The Church-State Wall: The European Strategy

Prof. Jan de Groof is quite blunt in his assessment of the American approach to church-state relations.

"[I]t is our conviction that separation is a completely outdated concept," he says.

De Groof, president of the European Society for Education Law and Policy, advocates a "European model" of church and state where government and religion "are not rivals," but work together to achieve "general, spiritual and material well-being."

Churches, church schools and other ministries in European countries, he notes, are generously supported with tax dollars collected by their public officials.

Many Americans might be inclined to dismiss de Groof's views on this subject as misguided, ill-informed and irrelevant. But he apparently has well-connected allies in the United States. De Groof was one of the featured speakers at a day-long Washington, D.C., conference sponsored by the Ethics and Public Policy Center and the Bradley Foundation, a wealthy right-wing foundation best known for its advocacy of religious school vouchers.

The Feb. 5 conference, titled "From The Wall Of Separation To The 'Ambiguous Embrace': Faith And Public Policy," was designed to lay the intellectual groundwork for scrapping America's separationist church-state policy and moving toward a European approach. The top priorities were tax aid to religious schools and "charitable choice" funding of church social services.

As might be expected, the speakers unleashed a torrent of shrill rhetoric.

Milwaukee Mayor John Norquist touted school vouchers, argued that the Constitution bans only state establishment of particular religions and compared our public schools to a communist-style monopoly.

Former U.S. Rep. Floyd Flake, whose New York church has received millions in federal aid, called for a "sensible relationship" between church and state. He too assailed the public schools, denouncing the "genocidal structure of the educational process."

Boston University sociologist Peter Berger said the European approach to religion is "much more liberal than the American one." He praised the church tax levied in Germany, noting that taxpayers can opt out of it by filing a statement with the authorities. "I don't think it's a violation of religious liberty at all," he said.

Some Americans might be inclined to dismiss this group as an assortment of cranks having little influence in the political system, but that would be imprudent.

At the prodding of zealots such as these, Congress has already approved "charitable choice" funding of churches in some social service programs, and others are being considered this year. Voucher aid to religious schools has been upheld by the Wisconsin Supreme Court and is pending before the courts in Ohio, Vermont and Maine.

University of Missouri law professor Carl Esbeck, an architect of charitable choice, told the conference that the Supreme Court is gradually moving away from the "no aid" policy that has marked previous decades. "I think that we should have a lot of enthusiasm as if we're clearly on the wave, which I think we are," he exulted.

Should Americans be alarmed by all of this? You bet. The framers of our Constitution and its Bill of Rights specifically rejected the European model of religion and government and guaranteed instead the right of all individuals to follow their own course in matters of faith.

This wise policy has given the American people broad freedom of conscience and allowed religion to flourish on a voluntary basis. In contrast to Europe, taxpayers are not saddled with church taxes, yet houses of worship are well attended and supported freely by the people.

Writing half a century after the adoption of church-state separation, James Madison insisted that the American approach to church and state had proved clearly superior to that of Europe. "[T]he prevailing opinion in Europe, England not excepted, has been that Religion could not be preserved without the support of Government or Government be supported without an established religion, that there must be at least an alliance of some sort between them," Madison observed.

However, the American experience has demonstrated, he said, that religion "does not need the support of Government and it will scarcely be contended that Government has suffered by the exemption of Religion from its cognizance, or its pecuniary aid."

Indeed, most scholars view church-state separation as one of America's greatest contributions to the world.

For example, in 1893 respected legal authority David Dudley Field observed, "The greatest achievement ever made in the cause of human progress is the total and final separation of church and state. If we had nothing else to boast of, we could lay claim with justice that first among the nations we of this country made it an article of organic law that the relations between man and his Maker were a private concern, into which other men have no right to intrude."

Yet this monumental achievement clearly stands in jeopardy. With anti-separationist forces afoot in Congress, the state legislatures and the courts, Americans would be wise to awaken to the dangers we face.

We'll take Madison over de Groof and his pals any day.