Sunday, April 12, 2009

Passing the Plate

Ben Franklin said nothing is certain but death and taxes. Where I come from, there’s one more thing that can be counted on. Preachers are always asking for money.

If you’ve ever attended a church service, no matter the denomination, you know it’s customary to pass the plate for an offering. Some find this offensive, wondering why organized religion always has its hand out. But I find it bracing, particularly as April 15 approaches, the date when taxes come due.

I’m reminded that churches and synagogues in America are supported voluntarily, by the contributions of their members, not by the IRS. That’s the way the founders—especially James Madison—thought it should be done.

Madison was the author of a famous document, the Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments. He wrote it in response to his fellow Virginian Patrick Henry, who in 1784 had introduced an act into the House of Burgesses levying a tax to pay for “teachers of the Christian religion.” Patrick’s bill would have made the Episcopal Church the state’s officially sanctioned religious institution. In a conciliatory gesture, there were some provisions for non-Anglicans to opt out and direct their taxes toward their own places of worship. George Washington straddled, indicating that he wasn’t opposed in principle toward “making people pay toward the support of that which they profess,” yet deeming Henry’s proposal “impolitic.”

But Madison was adamantly opposed. In his Memorial and Remonstrance, he took the position that government support eroded genuine faith. Think what happened to Christianity, after it became the official religion of the Roman Empire. What started out as a religion of love and non-violence quickly became a religion of crusading and conquest. Christianity became, in Madison’s words, a tool of “superstition, bigotry, and persecution.”

Madison’s arguments ultimately proved persuasive, especially for religious minorities like Baptists and Quakers, who had been harassed under the Church of England establishment that prevailed when Virginia was still a British colony. Our current separation of church and state is largely Mr. Madison’s legacy.

That legacy should be celebrated. Perhaps it won’t make April 15th a day of rejoicing, but it should sweeten the experience the next time you’re sitting in a house of worship and the offering is announced. Passing the plate is a quintessentially American ritual—one of the rare practices that congregations of almost every description in this spiritually diverse land have in common.


Tom Van Dyke said...

Gary, are you familiar with Adam Smith on religion?

Here's one:

Adam Smith wrote others, too.

I have thought that James Madison was quite influenced by Smith on the subject of religion. Preachers with government subsidies [or any guaranteed incomes] get fat, indolent, and dogmatic.

Much like human beings in general.

Robert Cornwall said...

The alternative to passing the plate are few. We could charge membership dues -- some religious communities do so -- or perhaps, as is true in some countries, receive state sponsorship.

With the alternatives laid out, passing the plate isn't such a bad idea. You give as you are led.

Of course, I'm the beneficiary of that action!

Lindsey Shuman said...

I agree. It would be very hard for churches to survive any other way than off the charity of its followers. I'm with Pastor on this one.

Tom Van Dyke said...

And Adam Smith, methinks, Lindsey.

Raven said...

Or perhaps the damned pastors could change the loaves into money and not bother their parishoners...oh wait,,, that would violate the law of GIVING...whatever!

IntelligentDecline said...

The discussion about church offerings offers another opportunity to note one of the multitude of schisms that separate Christian sects, casting a dubious shadow upon the idea that The Nation was founded as a "Christian Nation", as there is no all encompassing concept of a Christian gestalt, which is able to cover all Christian sects.

Many Christian sects, believe that its members are required to give 1/10th of their income to the church as tithe. Whereas many other Christian sects believe that the tithing requirement was only an Old Testament artifact only, becoming irrelevant after Jesus.

Tithe is found in the Old Testament in: Genesis 14:20, Leviticus 27:30-32, Numbers 18:24-28, Deuteronomy 12:6-17, Deuteronomy 14:22-28, Deuteronomy 26:12, 2 Chronicles 31:5-12, Nehemiah 10:37-39, Nehemiah 12:44, Nehemiah 13:5-12, Amos 4:4, and Malachi 3 3:8-10

In the New Testament it is mentioned just four times. In the Gospels: Matthew 23:23, Luke 11:42, and Luke 18:12; it comes with an intimation that it is indeed a relic of the past, and too often used in ostentatious shows of giving. In Hebrews 7:5-10, it is stated that tithing is only required of Christians, who were Jewish before converting.

Tithing was not formally recognized in the Christian Church until Pope Adrian I in 787. Odd that many Protestant sects would practise an 8th century Papist created church duty.

Also, something not discussed here, is that Article 3 of Madison's "Memorial and Remonstrance against Religious Assessments", seems to support the assertion that America was not founded as a Christian Nation:

"Because it is proper to take alarm at the first experiment on our liberties. We hold this prudent jealousy to be the first duty of Citizens, and one of the noblest characteristics of the late Revolution. The free men of America did not wait till usurped power had strengthened itself by exercise, and entangled the question in precedents. They saw all the consequences in the principle, and they avoided the consequences by denying the principle. We revere this lesson too much soon to forget it. Who does not see that the same authority which can establish Christianity, in exclusion of all other Religions, may establish with the same ease any particular sect of Christians, in exclusion of all other Sects? that the same authority which can force a citizen to contribute three pence only of his property for the support of any one establishment, may force him to conform to any other establishment in all cases whatsoever?"

Tom Van Dyke said...

Also, something not discussed here, is that Article 3 of Madison's "Memorial and Remonstrance against Religious Assessments", seems to support the assertion that America was not founded as a Christian Nation...That's Virginia. Many of the other states didn't see it that way and the constitution didn't interfere with their official establishment of various sects.

That's the key point re the constitution.

The federalism question is what's always missed, not Madison and Virginia, which are cited ad infinitum, as here.

JimM47 said...

The Smith-Madison thesis is alive and well even today in Religious Studies departments in somewhat altered form. The argument is that the existence of an "Ecclesia" — a church whose membership is coincident with the membership of a nation or society — and especially a state-supported Ecclesia, will contribute to the decline of religion because the church can count on membership and support without regard to how well it services either the needs or beliefs of its (sometimes only nominal) members. In Europe you get churches that people support on tax day, but that they don't go to except for weddings, funerals and major holidays, while in America we have Churches that pass the collection plate, but who have enthusiastic adherents. The marketplace of religious ideas gains vibrance by depending upon the actual marketplace.

Tom Van Dyke said...