December 23, 2005
Tragedy of the Church Commons
December 23, 2005 02:03 AM
In writing a paper about the First Amendment's religion clauses and federalism, I have gotten James Madison's Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments pretty well drummed into my head, but the fact that it was necessary still bemuses me. Carrying over ye olde Church of England practice, initially all Virginians were taxed to support Anglican ministers' salaries, although only half the population was Anglican. In 1776 the legislature voted to suspend the tax, and in 1784, a bill that imposed a tax to support all Christian ministers, allowing each taxpayer to designate the church that would receive his money, got some non-Anglican support.
Madison busted that up by publishing his petition, which argued against having the government coerce money out of people even for the churches they preferred, and the legislature ended up dropping all religious taxation and passing Jefferson's Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom. (As one learns upon entering the Charlottesville city limits, this, the Declaration and the founding of the University are the only accomplishments Jefferson wanted on his tombstone, his presidency apparently having been too embarrassing.)
What I find strange is the assumption of the time that such coercion was necessary to keep the churches going. Was it a tragedy of the commons rationale: that people would free ride and praise the Lord but not pass the collection plate, thus causing the church to shut down and everyone to be worse off? Or did the churchgoers not want to have to bear the full cost of keeping the churches going, and therefore preferred to have everyone obliged to pay up whether they attended or not? The Church of England maintains prettier buildings and probably more dignified services than the meeting halls and megachurches of America, but we appear to have a more vigorously religious population to show for our free market. Which is my perpetual befuddlement regarding those who want to get the state more involved in religion: where does that seem to benefit faith itself? (as perhaps opposed to the bureaucracy thereof)
"The Transatlantic Constitution, Colonial Legal Culture and the Empire" by Mary Sarah Bilder (2004 Harvard University Press) (law professor at BC Law) discusses the establishment of religion in the American colonies. While generally British Law applied to its colonies, in America not every colony "established" the Church of England. There is described in extensive detail a dispute between the Massachusetts colony and the Rhode Island colony involving a parcel of land in Rhode Island and whether it was "owned" by the Anglican Church or another religion prevalent in Rhode Island. The issue was addressed by Britain's Privy Council (a procedure that could be considered as a forbearer of US constitutional judicial review) that decided against the Massachusetts colony's interest in the Episcopal Church as extending across the border into Rhode Island. I commented on your earlier post concerning the Massachusetts Constitution and other states with constitutions that provided for established religions, including mandatory tithing. While the religion clauses of the First Amendment limited only the federal government, Virginia had the good sense to adopt Jefferson's approach.
It may well have been nothing more than rent-seeking by a politically powerful entity (the state church). Think of it as similar to sugar subsidies or farm price supports today.
On the desire for state involvement in religion, I think it's difficult for us to come at the issue from the perspective of an 18th-century church leader. They would perhaps say that the established church (because, in their view, its doctrine was correct) had a duty to try to save all of the souls in the state, both for those people's own sake and so that the state itself would find favor with God. This conception of the church's mission has a strong "civic" element to it, so it makes sense for the state to assist in the endeavor.
As for Jefferson's choices for his tombstone, I have to wonder if the inevitable political compromises inherent in being the leader of a democracy ultimately made the Presidency seem to Jefferson like a less worthwhile undertaking than his other "purer" accomplishments.
They would perhaps say that the established church (because, in their view, its doctrine was correct) had a duty to try to save all of the souls in the state, both for those people's own sake and so that the state itself would find favor with God. This conception of the church's mission has a strong "civic" element to it, so it makes sense for the state to assist in the endeavor.
This gets further into Christian theology than I can analyze. I understand why people at the time would think it necessary to send missionaries to Christianize the savages, but did the Anglicans really believe that people of other Christian denominations were unsaved?