State support for religion

Today in Western Europe, fewer and fewer people go to church. Yet, many modern states in that part of the world continue to collect religion’s share of public taxes. Citizens are asked to indicate to which religious group they belong, and, on this basis, a percentage of the tax collected from them is turned over to their church. If a taxpayer signifies that he has no religious affiliation, the corresponding religious tax is not collected. This valuable tax support has, however, not been enough to keep many centuries-old cathedrals and monuments from languishing in neglect and disrepair. This situation has often forced governments to take full responsibility for their rehabilitation and maintenance in recognition of their historic and cultural significance.

In contrast, religious communities in our country are left on their own to collect contributions from their members in order to sustain themselves. They cannot and do not expect the government to do this for them, consistent with our interpretation of the principle of Church-State separation. Still, religious practice remains fervent here, and churches retain a considerable influence in the public sphere that is seldom seen in modern secular societies.

State support for religion has a long history in Europe. In pre-modern times, the promotion of a religious faith was regarded as a primary duty of the state. Political power was routinely used to suppress other religions. Rulers needed religion to strengthen their legitimacy, and religion needed rulers to defend the one true faith. The gradual differentiation of politics from religion gave rise to the modern state and ended this institutional coupling.

But even in modern societies, such differentiation has not entailed a total break from religion. Governments continue to recognize the positive value of religion to society as a source of moral orientation and as a force for social integration. I learned from a German friend that in his country, at least until the 1950s, religious instruction was offered in public schools, which pupils had the option to skip if their parents did not think they needed it. The state paid the salaries of these teachers.

Modern governments have been equally mindful of the religious content of what is regarded as the cultural heritage of the nation. If one visits any of Europe’s majestic churches today, one is likely to find more tourists than religious devotees staring at their vaulted ceilings, a fact that may suggest that state support for these monuments has more to do with commerce than with religion. But, even socialist Cuba, which is explicitly atheistic, finds it important to preserve its colonial cathedrals as part of the nation’s rich architectural heritage instead of seeing them crumble into ruins.

Again, in contrast to Europe, our resolve to keep Church and State separate from one another is sometimes interpreted so dogmatically that it would outlaw any kind of support for religion, beyond giving churches tax-free privileges. Many fail to see that what the Constitution prohibits is not state support for religion per se but the establishment or preferential treatment by the state of a particular religion.

But, irony of all ironies, this situation has not prevented public officials from showering religious clerics with gifts and favors. The recent revelations made by the new administration of the Philippine Charity and Sweepstakes Office (PCSO) of the disbursement of funds earmarked for charity to some bishops in the form of personal vehicles attest to the existence of this practice. It appears to have reached its peak during the time of former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. Records show that Arroyo treated the PCSO as her own personal bank for dispensing largesse. A favorite defender of her presidency within the Catholic hierarchy, Butuan Bishop Juan de Dios Pueblos, wrote her a letter in March 2009 asking for a car as birthday gift. She promptly endorsed this ridiculous request to the PCSO “for appropriate action, please.” Three months later, the PCSO sent a check for P1.7 million to the Butuan diocese, care of Bishop Pueblos. What is one to make of this?

It seems to me that what is being violated here is not so much the principle of Church-State separation or the specific prohibition against using public funds in support of a particular religion. What we have here is plain and simple corruption—the appropriation of public funds for private purposes. The gift to Bishop Pueblos has less to do with advancing the cause of any church or religion than with rewarding him as an individual for his past and future political services. From the way he has conducted himself, it is clear that the bishop is no less a politician than the patron who showers him with gifts. He is as much a liability to religion as he is a problem to politics.

Although I do not regard myself as religious, I am nonetheless cognizant of the function of religious communication in even the most modern society. I believe it is crucial for every society to have a standpoint from which to measure and interrogate its notion of development. One such standpoint is that of perfection. It is not to say that only religion can fulfill this function, but the most potent standpoints of perfection have come from religion.