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Wall of Separation Becomes a Low Fence

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Thanks to U.S. News blogger Dan Gilgoff for dusting off Thomas Jefferson's memorable words on the dangers of government-sponsored religion. Jefferson deployed the phrase "wall of separation of church and state" in an 1808 letter arguing that government and religion should be kept apart.

With two presidents in a row institutionalizing federal funding of churches, Jefferson's wall is crumbling. Gilgoff raises an interesting point that hasn't been much discussed in the debate over faith-based initiatives, quoting Jefferson's concern that "state support of an established religion tends to make the clergy unresponsive to their own people and leads to corruption within religion itself."

The faith-based debate has mostly centered on fears about government supporting religion. But what about Jefferson's notion that government "support" could actually do harm to religion by co-opting churches, making them less responsive to parishioners and more concerned about doing what it takes to get and keep federal funds? For instance, preachers would have a powerful incentive to promote the careers and aims of politicians who help fund them.

In other words, instead of worrying about government promoting religion, the real concern might be the prospect of religion promoting government.

Craig blogs daily at on CQ Politics.

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