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.

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