Trinity Presbyterian Church in Charlottesville, Va., sponsors one of many programs around the country at which church volunteers are helping welfare moms to become spiritually dependent on God and financially independent of government. Trinity's program is also open to using some governmental funds, if theological strings are not attached. (That's a big if.)
It's ironic that Trinity's program is springing up in Thomas Jefferson's backyard, and perhaps contributing to a change in the government/ religion interface as profound as that hatched during the Revolutionary era at Jefferson's Monticello and at James Madison's nearby Montpelier. During the Revolution Long Tom and short Jemmy succeeded in depriving the corrupt Anglican church of mandatory taxpayer funds, but much remained unsettled when Britain and America signed a peace treaty in 1783.
One key issue at that time was whether total disestablishment (no government funds for any churches) was a good idea. Many Americans two centuries ago believed that without a mandatory funding base churches would become weaker and the whole society would suffer. For example, the New Hampshire constitution noted in 1784 that "morality and piety, rightly grounded on evangelical principles, will give the best and greatest security to government," but knowledge of these principles did not come naturally. Such knowledge was "most likely to be propagated through a society by the institution of the public worship of the Deity and of public instruction in morality and religion."
Many Americans also worried that total defunding might hurt the provision of charity and education as well. Since churches distributed alms and ran schools, what would happen if churches ran short of funds and volunteers? Patrick Henry, "the voice of the Revolution" (Jefferson was "the pen"), came up with an idea for throwing out the Anglicans' dirty bathwater without tossing away some infant churches as well.
Henry in 1784 offered in his Virginia legislature a Bill Establishing a Provision for Teachers of the Christian Religion. Henry's bill proposed a property tax for support of ministers, teachers, and alms-distributors, with all denominations enjoying equal privileges. Each person when he paid the tax could name the religious society to which he dedicated the tax. If the taxpayer did not designate a particular organization, the tax would be applied to the maintenance of a county school.
The Henry proposal for multiple establishment had broad support from Virginian leaders such as George Washington and George Mason, who became known as the moving force behind the First Amendment. Mason observed that citizens had a public interest in supporting religious teaching, since "justice and virtue are the vital principles of republican government."
But Madison was worried. He referred frequently to the persecution of Baptists and attacked the Henry bill as bad precedent that could lead once again to denominational monopoly-for what would happen if the overwhelming majority of taxpayers all gravitated to one denomination? Madison fought the bill brilliantly, building a coalition of deists, freethinkers, low-taxers, Baptists, and some Presbyterians.
Through clever legislative strategy Madison delayed a vote on the bill until 1785, by which time Patrick Henry was governor once more, with his rhetorical skills removed from the legislative debate. Madison won the day, and not in Virginia alone. His plan several years later was nationalized within the Constitutional framework, and it worked wonderfully for a time. Ministerial slothfulness, common under the Anglican monopoly, became rare as pastors had to serve their sheep to receive their tithes. Charity flourished.
And yet, churches in the 19th century lost their influence over education, as the state with its tax base moved in. The second part of the church triad, charity, slipped away from the 1920s through the 1960s. Churches could not keep up with increasingly massive government welfare spending. Their own activities became marginalized.
Within recent decades, some have noted that two-thirds of earlier church functions have slipped away, and maybe complete disestablishment wasn't such a good idea. But the response to such concerns has been easy: Point to the established churches of Europe and note how they had magnificent, government-financed structures, but became largely empty.
Tax credits to increase support for religious schools and faith-based welfare reform efforts represent a new kind of multiple establishment-not of churches, but of faith-based programs. Their use would not be restricted to Christians, as in Patrick Henry's proposal, but the principle is similar: community obligation, individual choice. Each person could send $500 or $1,000 of the tax owed directly to a charity rather than funneling it through Washington.
The next few years will tell whether the Jefferson/Madison concept of total disestablishment is an idea whose time has come and gone. The future of programs at Trinity Presbyterian and other churches will show whether we will stop attempting to banish God from welfare and educational functions and start bringing life to what has become a naked public square.