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17 July 2017

Recent decisions in the US threaten to weaken firewalls between the two institutions, and draw parallels with questions of religion and society in Asia, Sally Tyler writes.

As customary, the Supreme Court of the United States saved its most incendiary decision for the last days of the court’s annual session, a sort of precursor to Fourth of July fireworks. This year’s explosive decision held that states cannot deny public funds to churches strictly because they are religious institutions.

A deceptively mundane case concerning a competitive grant program to resurface a church childcare centre’s playground, Trinity Lutheran v. Comer could potentially impact more than 30 US states which prevent public funds from going to religious organisations, even for secular purposes.

The decision is being widely criticised as a blow to the fundamental tenet of separation of church and state.

While the high court ruling garnered major headlines, an even more pernicious attack on church/state separation was stealthily slipped into the 2018 Financial Services and General Government Appropriations bill, which provides annual funding for the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), among other federal government agencies.

By reversing the long-standing Johnson Amendment, the bill would eliminate the IRS’ ability to define “political activity” for non-profit entities, such as religious institutions, and would severely curtail the agency’s power to investigate churches which engage in political activity.

The amendment prohibits tax-exempt non-profit organisations, including religious entities, from participating in a political campaign on behalf of/or opposing any candidate. Also, while most non-profits may use up to 20 per cent of their budget to lobby on issues by taking positions on legislation and ballot initiatives, religious organisations do not have a quantified threshold for such advocacy, but must limit any lobbying to an “insubstantial” basis, which is defined on a case-by-case basis by the IRS.

The threat of taxation has been the primary regulatory mechanism that the US has used to shore up what Thomas Jefferson called “the wall of separation between church and state”.

More on this: China’s new religious regulations

The primacy of this concept within American society cannot be minimised. The country’s founders, some who had fled religious persecution, understood religious freedom to incorporate both freedom to practice their religion of choice, as well as freedom from religion, a concept heartily articulated by Australia’s most recent census.

But without the impending stick of taxation, would churches use their considerable resources to play politics? Other nations seem to agree that they might.

In the Philippines, President Rodrigo Duterte aimed his gunslinger mouth at bishops during his campaign, and some of his supporters have urged him to begin taxing churches. But one doubts he actually has the guts to pull the trigger on his rhetorical threats in a nation with the world’s third largest Catholic population.

In Singapore, churches are required to register as charities to receive a tax exemption, with revenue from side business or investment taxed at a regular rate.

Not surprisingly, the Singapore government is efficient about policing revenue owed to it. Leaders of the City Harvest Church (CHC) were recently criminally convicted in a high-profile case for misuse of SG$50 million of donations meant for charity, funnelling the funds into the pastor’s wife’s pop singing career, as well as an opulent penthouse in Sentosa.

I got a chance to see the CHC meeting hall while in Singapore earlier this year. Huge and gleaming, with overtones of a spacecraft ready to take the faithful to Heaven, it broadcasts plainly that the church is a proponent of what has been called prosperity theology.

Though geography and denominations may vary, this form of religion flourishes on many continents.

Nor does Christianity have the lock on prosperity theology. Thailand’s Wat Dhammakaya urges adherents around the world to give generous donations as a short cut to merit making and is conspicuous in its accumulation of wealth. Some have argued that the junta has been targeting the temple’s assets to line its own coffers, summoning images of Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries to pay for his military campaigns. The Thai government maintains the case was solely about money-laundering charges against the temple’s abbot Luang Por Dhammachayo.

But, as with so much in Thailand over the past decade, the dotted line leads back to the unseen hand of the country’s former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, supposedly conducting the orchestra from across the sea. It has been suggested that the underlying reason why current Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha has drawn a bull’s eye on the temple is its alleged close association with the deposed prime minister and the loyalty that many Red Shirts show for it.

The endless Ramayana ballet of Thaksin and Prayuth aside, the failed siege of Dhammakaya illustrates one peril involved in establishing a state religion: its institutions become impervious to attack by the government, regardless of the transgressions of their leaders.

Thailand’s constitutional requirement that its monarch be Buddhist has created a de facto state religion. Despite its litany of legitimate or manufactured charges against Dhammachayo, the junta must tread carefully in attacking any wat, even one thought to have deep connections to political forces which threaten its existence.

More on this: A nation at war with itself

Power is, and always has been, central to the struggle between church and state. When instructing Christian disciples on how to set up the new church, Paul tells them, in Hebrews 10:25, “Do not give up meeting together.” Assembly is at the heart of most religions, and this factor makes the church a potent target for political manipulation. Add the high-tech reach of televangelism and you have an instrument capable of being weaponised for partisan purposes.

This is precisely the calculus that led to Trump’s move to reverse the Johnson Amendment. A man who had no contact with evangelicals until he launched his campaign, he has made the facile assumption that they will be a powerful force for his re-election, so he aims to unleash preachers across the country to speak in support of Republican candidates for next year’s mid-term elections.

But the Christian faith, like other religions, is more diverse and nuanced than can be encompassed by his bombastic rhetoric. If his plan to encourage political participation of churches becomes law, he may well be greeted with legions of religious leaders who oppose his efforts to deny health coverage, undo environmental protections and allow racial discrimination, and call for their followers to cast votes on those issues. Rather than the wind-up music box that Trump envisions setting in motion with his move to allow overt political action by churches, he may have opened Pandora’s box.

But always complicating questions of church and state is the difficulty in disaggregating between religion and culture. Indeed, when most people speak of what religion means to them, they do not talk as often about spirituality or an individual relationship with God as about cultural practices. And religious adherents are taught from the beginning not only this is what we believe, but also this is what defines us, and this is what distinguishes us from others. Separateness and division are hard-wired into the very concept of world religions.

Trump attempted to foment this sense of cultural divide in a darkly nationalistic speech emphasising the spectre of otherness in Warsaw before the G-20 summit. Hoping to rally NATO allies to help the US fend off hordes of imagined barbarians at the gates, he implored, “We must work together to counter forces…from the South or the East, that threaten … to erase the bonds of culture, faith and tradition that make us who we are.”

Rhetorically addressing the collective West, he asked: “Do we have the confidence in our values to defend them at any cost?” I would remind him that religious freedom, predicated on the separation of church and state, is at the centre of American values; but it is his own Administration that constitutes the biggest threat to it.

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