Nearly all the original American colonies -- like their British rulers -- had official state-funded churches. But after winning independence from Britain in 1783, America's founders abolished the financing of any religion and declared there would be no national church of the United States.
At that time, nearly the entire American colonial population was Protestant Christian. Today, the United States is home to nearly every religion in the world.
Douglas Laycock, professor of constitutional law at the University of Texas says the spirit of church-state separation remains, though its interpretation is sometimes difficult. “We hold on to the broad principles that government is not to interfere with anyone's practice of their religion. Government is not to support or sponsor religion. The new issue is whether the government should pay for religious schools, hospitals and social service agencies. Those are mixed institutions. They teach religion, but they also perform services that the government can pay for, that have secular value.”
President Bush ignited intense debate when he proposed establishing an office to fund religious groups for such services, a concept he had developed as Texas governor years before. He argues that religious organizations are most efficient and best suited to care for people in ways secular organizations cannot.
But many lawmakers reject the idea, and after the measure failed in the US congress, the president created his own religious or "faith-based" offices. Recently, a former manager of the program accused the Bush administration of using the initiative to win political support from Christians but not following it through. Only a fraction of the promised billions of US dollars have been spent on the proposal. The White House denies any slowdown.
For decades, governments at all levels have provided money to charities for social welfare programs. But President Bush has gone beyond that, says Welton Gaddy, a Baptist minister and president of the Interfaith Alliance, an organization dedicated to promoting the role of faith in civic life. “For the first time in history, public tax dollars are channeled into pervasively religious institutions. It represents the public funding of religious activities.”
The Reverend Gaddy believes this move endangers the constitutional guarantee of church-state separation. But supporters of the faith-based initiatives say they are reversing years of discrimination against government funding of religious groups.
Richard Land, also a Baptist minister, is a director at the evangelical Southern Baptist Convention. He says the Bush initiative does not violate church-state separation because it does not directly fund the spread of religious beliefs. But it does recognize the robust character of religion in America. “There are secular fundamentalists who pretend and want the country to pretend that we are not a very religious nation - we are. 61 percent of Americans say that religion is very important in their lives. In this regard, America is much more like the rest of the world and much less like Western Europe and Canada.
The Reverend Land notes President Bush has always said his faith will govern his actions. That is not so different from the attitude of past presidents. “The president is not departing from what has been the historical practice of Americans and their leaders having religion play an important part in their speeches, public policy and in their public events. It is not a violation of separation of church and state unless it were to be required by the state, which of course it is not.”
However, the Reverend Gaddy thinks President Bush goes further than his predecessors. “He uses religious language to advance public policy. That shuts down the debate that is so important in a democracy by suggesting that if this position is one endorsed by religion itself, then this is an issue you should not question.”
The Reverend Gaddy warns this kind of rhetoric could lead to further entanglement of church and state, with injury to both. But the Reverend Land contends that a president's moral values -- often grounded in religious belief -- inevitably tie to his public policies. No doubt religious leaders like the Reverends Land and Gaddy will continue their debate as President Bush recently re-affirmed his commitment to the initiative, saying "faith can move mountains."