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Should churches have taken virus money?

Every discussion of separation of church and state evokes loud voices, sometimes shouting. Many do not accept it as a governmental principle even though brighter people than us have debated and accepted it. After all, James Madison and Thomas Jefferson were no slouches.

So at the risk of alienating the churches of North Dakota, I feel compelled to bring up the issue since so many churches applied and received COVID19 money to keep their employees on the job. This issue has two sides – secular and spiritual.

Exempt from unemployment

On the secular side, can churches be considered employers in the normal sense of the word? Churches are normally exempt from the unemployment tax. On what basis then are they not counted as employers for unemployment taxes, but they are considered such for the federal COVID grant program.

Now these are not outright grants. They are loans that will be converted to free grants when churches verify that the money sustained the employment of church workers.

Some recipients of these grants are using money directly for other purposes. One strategy is putting all of the church employees on the federal money to free up regular collections for nonemployee expenditures.

54% still giving

According to the Pew Research Center, 54% of religious attenders in the United States claim that they are continuing to make their regular contributions to the church, meaning that churches have significant income from their parishioners. They are in clover during the pandemic.

Few questions were asked when the federal government threw $2.2 trillion into the economy. It was the most poorly administered giveaway of money in history. But for several reasons.

Speed was critical; the IRS was underfunded and understaffed for the job and, as soon as the people knew there was money in it for themselves, the political pressure became immense. The ink on the bill was still wet and people were looking in their mailboxes.

Churches underfunded

On the spiritual side, there should have been no need for federal money in the churches. The truth is that almost all churches are underfunded and understaffed. The first church should give modern Christians a clue as to what a real Christian church ought to be like.

With joy and enthusiasm, they sold their property and contributed everything to the general fund without regard to the legalism of the Old Testament. Even though many church leaders would like Christians to believe that 10% of income is a hard rule, there is no rule in the New Testament because Christians pledged everything when they decided to become Christ follower.

Parishioners give 4%

Since we now have the widely-held myth that everything is subject to the 10% rule, we have wheedled that down so that average Christians give only three and four percent of their income. It’s like 75 MPH becoming 80 MPH on the Interstate.

Because a believer has already pledged everything, it shouldn’t be necessary for the pastors to even bring up the subject of money – the church treasury ought to be overflowing, filled by generous hearts. Instead, we have parishioners grumbling about “the church is after our money.”

Christianity sliding

Everyone is looking forward when the pandemic is over and life can return to normal. For churches, the old normal is not good enough. By every measurement, Christianity was sliding before being crimped by the virus.

Unless more resources are committed to more effective ministries, Christianity will continue to slide until the United States becomes like Western Europe, spiritually speaking.

As a Christian and a political scientist, it is disturbing to see churches compromise their independence by taking federal money. At the same time, it is difficult to condemn them when their parishioners have kept them on the edge of bankruptcy.

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