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Ask Professor Burge 4 – Overlap and Separation of Religion and the State


Author(s): Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Publication (Outlet/Website): Canadian Atheist

Publication Date (yyyy/mm/dd): 2020/07/31

Professor Ryan Burge‘s website states: “I am an Assistant Professor of Political Science as well as the Graduate Coordinator at Eastern Illinois University. I teach in a variety of areas, including American institutions, political behavior, and research methods. My research focuses largely on the intersection between religiosity and political behavior (especially in the American context). Previously, I have completed an appointment as a post doctoral research fellow at the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute in Carbondale, Illinois. While there I was an adviser on issues of survey methodology and polling, as well as providing data collection and analysis.

I have published over a dozen articles in a number of well regarded peer reviewed journals including Politics & Religion, the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, the Review of Religious Research, the Journal of Religious Leadership, RepresentationPoliticsGroupsand Identities, the Journal of Communication and Religion, the Journal of Religion, Media and Digital Culture and the Social Science Computer Review. 

In addition, my research has been covered in a variety of media outlets including The New York Times, The Washington Post, CNN, NBC, Vox, 538, BuzzFeed News, Al-Jazeera, Christianity Today, Religion News Service, The Daily Mail, Deseret News, World Magazine, Relevant, and C-SPAN. I am the co-founder and frequent contributor to Religion in Public, a forum for scholars of religion and politics to make their work accessible to a more general audience.

Finally, I am a pastor in the American Baptist Church, having served my current church for over thirteen years.”

Here we talk about some of the areas of overlap and separation of religion and the government.

*Interview conducted on July 7, 2020.*

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: So, we’re looking at an intersection of finances from taxes distributed by the American government and religious institutions. In general, how do Americans see this kind of cross-section? Do they see it as a hot button issue or more as a lukewarm issue?

Professor Burge: I feel this is one of the issues sitting in the background of religion and politics. One, it is never at the top of the list. Two, I think the American public think the government should not get involved with religion and proselytizing or supporting one religion or another or no religion.

When we talk about he separation of church and state, it is not about the government giving money to churches. It is about the constellation of issues revolving around the Sun of the issue of separation of church and state. It will flare up. Then it will go away. George W. Bush had faith-based initiatives, where the government wanted to give money to churches to feed the hungry, cloth the hungry. It was an issue for a while.

It went away. Now, we see a new thing. It will go away. There will be another thing in the future. Definitely, right now, it is a hot button issue.

Jacobsen: How does this split in terms of the three major political affiliations in the United States – Republican, Democrat, and Independent?

Burge: Christians are generally Republican. Republican Party is the party of white Christians generally. Don’t get me wrong, The Democratic Party has half of its members identifying with Christianity. When we think of giving money to churches rom the government, Republicans are more supportive of it than Democrats.

If you ask, ‘Do you think if churches are given money by government that this will increase religious division?’ Democrats are more likely to say, “Yes,” than Republicans. Democrats are more likely to say that people shouldn’t be forced to engage in religious practice than Republicans. So, there’s always this divide.

The Democrats are very wary of using tax dollars to try to grow churches, to try to proselytize, evangelize, etc. This kind of stuff. They think the two spheres should be separate. There is a whole growing literature politics science called Christian Nationalism. It is this insidious belief that America is a ‘Christian nation’ founded on Christian principles and, therefore, the government should advocate for those Christian principles to the detriment of people who are non-Christians.

For example, Muslims, things like Sharia Law. Things like the Ten Commandments up. That’s a big deal for Christian nationalists. It is almost always a Republican idea; that America is a Christian nation, while most Democrats disagree and consider America a pluralistic nation of all religious groups and backgrounds and should celebrate that. Christian nationalists think we should celebrate Christianity and almost always conservative Protestant Christianity.

Jacobsen: Is another term for this Dominionism or Reconstructionism?

Burge: Yes, there’s this thing called the Seven Mountains. This is all part od Dominionism. If you get way down the rabbit hole of all this stuff, a lot of people who write about his stuff will write about America pre-destined by God, chosen by God; ‘we are the new Israel.’ Ron Reagan even used the language of John Winthrop calling us ‘a shining city upon hill.’ Like, ‘Everyone will come to us.’ It is exactly the language of the Old Testament of Israel being a shining city on the hill.

It goes back to saying, “We are not another nation. We are a special nation called on, by God.” I don’t think any other nation on Earth believes that, like we do in America. It is a big part of conservative politics in America in seeing us as special and themselves as part of it.

Jacobsen: When it comes to government and religion, what are the ones that come to mind now?

Burge: Yes, so, the one that’s really on everyone’s mind is the Paycheque Protection Program, which when Covid took hold and many businesses in America had to close shop; the idea was to give money to employers to keep people employed by their employers. It could be tens of millions out of work and on unemployment lines. The government strategy was, “Let’s give money to employers to keep those people employed by their employers, so, when Covid is over, it is easier for them to go back into the workforce. So, they don’t have to go on unemployment insurance and don’t have to be rehired.”

Basically, they would give you money to pay 10 weeks of payroll expenses. It was a loan. But if you filled out the forgiveness documents, you get all the money refunded or forgiven. It would be a forgivable loan, so a direct grant. The Trump Administration made the PPP loans available to religious organizations and churches. Many of them received funds with over $7 billion of federal money given to religious organizations and churches.

For a lot of constitutional scholars, especially on the left, they considered this a violation because it was state supported religion with paying clergy salaries. That’s clearly, for those people, a violation. For others, it says, “Other people got it. If churches didn’t get it, then it is a violation. It might also be a violation of the First Amendment.”

It is a big discussion in the secular communities. They are very upset that churches do not pay property taxes, don’t pay income taxes, and are enjoying the PPP loans. The reason for the flare-up now is the small business association released a list of everyone who received the loans of $150,000. It was 661,000 organizations. About 12,000 were religious organizations.

So, lots and lots of churches got lots and lots of money from the government to keep the doors open.

Jacobsen: What would happen without the funding to those churches?

Burge: Good question, mass layoffs in a lot of cases. When people think of churches in America, they think of thousands of people and 20, 40, 60, staff members. The average church is very small, less than 100 people. A lot of them were so vulnerable. The downturning in given would have to close the doors, couldn’t employ staff. It would have lead to the closure of many churches.

For bigger churches, like megachurches with 75 or 100 staff, it would lead to mass layoffs. You have to think from an economic standpoint. Is it good that these people were laid off for the economy as a whole, forgetting that fact that they work for churches? We don’t know the full effects of PPP yet.

According to the document that I saw, 31,000,000 Americans’ jobs were retained because of PPP, which is a huge chunk. We have 160,000,000 adult Americans. We’re talking about 20% of all adult Americans. Overall, I think it was a good program.

Jacobsen: When it comes to other forms, some of the aforementioned with tax exemptions for places of worship in general. How do Christian nationalists reconcile the idea of a separation of religion and government while also seeing the tax exempt status for their places of worship? Also, the other side as well, how do the ordinary believers and the secular believe this?

Burge: The thing about Christian nationalism, they do not want a separation of church and state. They want an integration of church and state as long as the church is the Evangelical Protestant Church. They want America to be a Christian government used for advocating Christian principles aimed for proselytizing Christian principles. They want the Ten Commandments up in the court rooms.

They want the Ten Commandments up as monuments. They want prayer in schools, public schools. It is all part of Christian nationalism as an idea. PPP is an idea. It should support the church because it is a Christian thing, but not to mosques, synagogues, and all these other groups. They might bristle at that idea. In the case of more moderate Christians, I think a lot of them take a pragmatic view of things like this.

They see churches need money to keep the doors open and do not necessarily see this as encouraging religion of a specific type. There has been a huge backlash from the secular community saying, ‘This is all a sham. Churches don’t pay taxes and should not get money back.” What is interesting, American Atheist, Freedom From Religion, the Humanist Society, Center for Inquiry took money too. They’re non-profits as well. It has been really funny.

Even the Ayn Rand Foundation…

Jacobsen: [Laughing].

Burge: …they even took a payout from the PPP. So, it goes to show you. Your ideals are one thing. When they are handing out cheques, everyone puts their hand out and tries to justify it on the backend while trying to justify it as they see fit. It has been an interesting exercise in seeing how theoretical policy meets real policy. We are seeing most Americans do not stick to their guns theologically or politically.

When the money comes around, they stick out their hands.

Jacobsen: What organizations did stick to their guns and not giving ad hoc rationalization?

Burge: It is hard to know. Some places did apply and didn’t get it, for whatever reason. We don’t know who didn’t apply. For instance, I look for the Southern Baptist Convention on the list. They weren’t on it. They may have had theological reasons or didn’t need the money or under a different name.

So, it is hard to know who didn’t do that. Tons of Catholic dioceses did that. This is what makes Catholic diocese more difficult. They have clergy, teaching schools. The money went to pay for teachers who work in the school systems too. It is hard to know out of the $7.3 billion went to clergy versus teachers, janitors, and others who do not do a clergy function while taking care of the building

We’ll never know the answer to that question.

Jacobsen: So, how much does America truly separate government and religion?

Burge: Some [Laughing], I think that’s the answer. I could go for an hour on instances where we give religion to wide of a range today. The court system in America has been incredibly deferential to religious groups.

A pastor can be fired at any time for any reason without any legal recourse. There are some states: If you run a private daycare, you are inspected several times a year. If you are a Christian daycare as part of a church, then you are never inspected because no politician in America wants to seem like they are antagonistic to religion or Christianity.

So, Christianity in America gets free range, in a lot of ways, because people are afraid to check them – politicians and bureaucrats as well. So, I think the answer is that Christianity does get a wide girth. I don’t think there are many instances where it is explicitly supported by money. However, churches are non-profits who don’t have to pay taxes or even file much paperwork.

If you are a non-profit in America, secular non-profit, you have to file a form every year listing how much is raised, how much is spent, who is on the board, and the salaries. Churches in America do not need to file any of this. It is an opacity in the report filing. It is an instance of American religion insulated from politics.

I think that’s the way most people like it – staying far away from it. However, I will say this. There are many churches who want to be political. There is something called Pulpit Freedom Sunday that happens every year. Some members of the clergy will give speeches in which they explicitly endorse political candidates for parties, which is a violation of the Johnson Amendment; it allows all these churches to have all this freedom to not pay taxes as long as they don’t endorse candidates.

These churches will endorse candidates as a means to thumb their nose at the IRS to see if they will revoke their tax exempt status. It never happens; it has never happened. Because again, the IRS is scared to death of seeming antagonistic to religion. They will never shut down a church, even if they are not only violating the spirit but the letter of the law of the Johnson Amendment.

So, churches in America have a lot, a lot, a lot of latitude in how they behave and the government doesn’t want to intrude on them.

Jacobsen: What would you consider the greatest area of separation? What would you consider the greatest area of overlap?

Burge: The biggest area is in hiring and firing. If you run a private business and fire or hire someone, you have to justify this. Churches have to justify none of this. They can fire anyone, anytime, for any reason. There are churches that have fired people for coming out as gay.

There was a Catholic church that fired a schoolteacher that had in vitro fertilization because it is a violation of Catholic doctrine. The courts have nothing to say about it. They intentionally will not mess with that at all. It is outside their purview.

When it comes to when they are really close together, I don’t think there are any really strong instances of that, except for the fact that there are times when churches will do things like voter registration drives in the lobby of the church. Even some churches in America, typically black churches, will have political candidates come speak at the pulpit, that’s a collide. White Evangelicals tend not to do that.

They tend to bristle at that. What they tend not to understand, the Black Church in America came up during Jim Crow and discrimination where the church became the meeting place in all aspects of life for African Americans because they did not have access to the Moose Lodge, the Elks’ Club, or a social club.

If you wanted to meet together in a big space, e.g., in the South during Jim Crow, the church became the place for that because it was easy. You didn’t think about the implications of a politician speaking from the pulpit. Mike Pence spoke from a church in Dallas a little while ago, predominantly white Evangelical church.

I think those are the times religion and politics are really, really close, when politicians try to reach out to religious demography while trying to win over votes.

Jacobsen: Professor Burge, thank you for your time.

Burge: Always a pleasure.


In-Sight Publishing by Scott Douglas Jacobsen is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Based on a work at


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