The state's duty

National | Government officials must oversee tax-funded institutions

Issue: "UNbelievable," June 17, 2000

Who says a single citizen can't change anything? Someone attending a photographer's lecture and slide show last month at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond didn't like what he (or she) saw-which is understandable, since the show included graphic pictures of people engaged in sex acts as well as nude pictures of pubescent girls.

Instead of just getting angry about it, the person wrote an anonymous letter to Gov. James Gilmore, alerting him to the trash that the state-funded museum was promoting. The letter prompted Mr. Gilmore to write his own letter to the museum's director, who in turn promised to draw up new guidelines for reviewing material for display at the museum.

This is the second time in recent months that a Republican official stood up to an institution of the cultural left and held it accountable for how it spends taxpayers' money. Mr. Gilmore's move came on the heels of New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani's attempt last year to withdraw city support from the Brooklyn Museum of Art because of an exhibit that included a portrait of the Virgin Mary smeared in elephant dung.

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Taken together, the two actions may represent a renewed GOP commitment to a common-sense proposition-namely that the government has a duty to oversee tax-funded institutions. If museums want to act independently, then they should be independently funded. They cannot, in effect, say to taxpayers, "Hand over the cash, then sit down, be quiet, and don't dare-through your elected representatives-try to influence how we spend your money."

At the height of the furor over Mr. Giuliani and the Brooklyn museum, National Review's Kate O'Beirne spoke for many on the right when she made that very point in a debate on ABC's Nightline: "Look, there's an easy remedy here. If you don't want to be accountable for the use of tax dollars, then don't take the tax dollars." She argued that since the museum's officials accept tax funding, "I don't think they have any right to object when taxpayers, through their elected representatives, object to what they're doing and don't want their tax dollars spent in such a way."

There's just one problem: Many of the same conservatives who applaud Mr. Gilmore and Mr. Giuliani also back government funding for religious schools (through vouchers) and religious charities (through "charitable choice"). Those activities have more popular support than tax-funded pornography can muster, but they could not escape some regulation-for according to our own principles the government isn't overreaching when it regulates tax-funded organizations; it's merely doing its duty.

Most people don't realize it, but throughout American history many evangelicals have opposed government funding for churches and religious groups. They pointed out that God gives civil states coercive power for specific purposes (Romans 13:1-7, 1 Peter 2:13-14), which do not include raising money for churches and religious groups. Baptists and Southern Presbyterians were especially adamant about sticking to the Bible on such matters.

One of their chief concerns was that the church would lose its moral claim to independence if it became funded by the state. The great 19th-century theologian Robert L. Dabney, for instance, said that if "the State pays the salaries of the preachers, her duty to the taxpayer will not only justify, but demand, its supervision of the functions paid for.... Then, how shall the endowed church maintain its spiritual independence, or its allegiance to King Christ?" Dabney, in other words, wanted the church to remain independent, but he knew that it could not morally do so if it accepted tax money.

Even the state merely paying the utility bills of faith-based drug rehab centers could lead to demands for government control. One solution is to allow citizens a tax credit for money that they donate to private schools or private charities. Arizona already has such a program for schools, and several other states are considering similar ideas (see WORLD, April 8, 2000). With these programs the taxpayer himself decides where his money goes, so there's no need for government oversight.

But the tax-credit approach isn't nearly as popular as the spending approach in conservative public-policy circles; many on the right are too quick to propose that religious institutions become state-funded enterprises. But we can't have situational principles: If tax-funded institutions that we don't like must answer to the state, then tax-funded institutions that we like must do so as well. Justice demands no less.

Timothy Lamer
Timothy Lamer

Tim is editor of WORLD Magazine.


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