Wednesday, July 22, 2020

Robert Harman: Lowering the Wall of Separation - The UMC Response to the Paycheck Protection Program

Today's post is by Robert J. Harman. Rev. Harman is a mission executive retired from the General Board of Global Ministries.

The wall of separation between church and state was lowered this year in a significant way. The CARES Act and the Paycheck Protection Program administered by the Small Businesses Administration made sizable loans/grants available to religious organizations to bridge anticipated shortfalls in revenue from the collapse of the pandemic economy.


The General Council on Finance and Administration gave the green light to broad church participation in this program aimed at alleviating a crisis, and the UMC took advantage of the opportunity big time. According to UMNS, 751 United Methodist entities, including churches, annual conferences, seminaries, episcopal offices, and general agencies, have received $0.5 billion.


Pragmatically speaking, United Methodists should take satisfaction in the promised results of a program aimed at alleviating the loss of key salaried personnel and preserving program continuity in this time of severe economic crisis.


But where is the evidence of dialogue within the communion about the wisdom of accepting this historic diversion from the separation of church and state by accepting government funds for the performance of strictly religious functions? Despite the GCFA go-ahead, there was no General Conference approval or international conversation. Yet the paucity of dissent on this issue suggests the UMC is OK with this latest manifestation of the trend in policies lowering the wall between church and state.


While the PPP episode offers evidence that enforcement of the separation principle has gone the same direction as Sunday blue laws, there are additional issues of policy, polity, practice, politics, and ethics deserving of examination.


First, the impact of this program is short lived, with an effective life of only eight weeks. What are the church’s plans for longer-term survival, personnel retention, and institutional continuity after federal intervention? The economic challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic will persist for a long time. Yet to be answered is what long-term impacts upon the voluntary stewardship of the church’s membership lie ahead.


Second, association with government policies and programs assures a higher level of interest and controversy. Such scrutiny is becoming apparent as public media focuses upon some of the unflattering aspects of the PPP legislation and its approval process. We learn now that Roman Catholic Church lobbyists were unleashed to ensure church inclusion in the PPP legislation. Catholic churches have hauled in over $3 billion already, many in dioceses that have chosen bankruptcy to avoid funding, or have already found sufficient reserves to fund millions of dollars of obligations in sexual abuse cases. What other mixed motives for engaging in the PPP will be disclosed?


Scrutiny of the use of government funds is always arbitrary as well as public. Auditors will be hard at work analyzing grants and interviewing recipients for possible non-compliance. Among the early publicized findings in the Washington Post is the unexplained discrepancy in the proposal made by Trinity Episcopal Church in Houston for receiving PPP funds to secure 500 jobs, when the church roster lists a staff of only twelve. Some issues of local animus are also likely to surface, such as taxpayer grievances pointing to churches’ enjoyment of tax-free properties and revenues while competing with highly taxed small businesses for PPP dollars. There is no denial of a legitimate fairness issue here.


Third, in the current context of stark partisan political division, the impact of the promotion of PPP deserves special consideration in this election year. In their PPP press release, President Trump and Vice President Pence did not miss the opportunity to appeal directly to their ardent religious supporters and the vocal advocates for government funding of religion among their political base by taking credit for the successful inclusion of church participation in PPP. Will participation risk being interpreted as endorsement?


The political agenda of the evangelical right wants unfettered access to federal funds for their programs and agencies without regard to, or in defiance of, the implications for the establishment clause of the first amendment to the constitution. Their success in litigating cases in the courts has resulted from a polished legal argument that redefines the right to religious liberty as not only a protection from government interference but a robust defense of a right to equal access to government resources by religious groups. That rationale, however, includes a self-serving waiver from the enforcement of federal regulations guaranteeing non-discriminatory employment opportunities, a policy of inclusion that many evangelical groups aggressively resist on religious grounds. Both equal access to money and waivers from non-discrimination are found in the Paycheck Protection Program legislation. United Methodists have historically supported non-discrimination policies. Will accepting PPP funds be seen as dropping those objections?


Finally, there are issues of precedence and consistency within the global UMC. Global Ministries missionary personnel policies prohibit contracts with government agencies. History offers well-documented evidence of the Central Intelligent Agency soliciting missionary assistance to access high-priority intelligence for the US Government’s subversive purposes. That abuse was addressed by General Conference legislation writing admonishments into the Book of Discipline. Nor is that the only place in which United Methodist polity supports the separation of church and state. Should this experience of lowering the wall of separation prompt a change in the statement on religious liberty in the Social Principles that resists government dominance over religion and vice versa?


The financial policies for managing and protecting United Methodist mission funds prohibit the co-mingling of church and government monies when program support requires government assistance. Welcoming applications for government PPP funds in the spontaneity of a crisis moment without precaution sends mixed policy messages to our global partners in mission. Their service is too often rendered under conditions of unrelenting hardship, often in contexts of political instability where the absence of due diligence risks exposure to consequences that can include physical harm. Solidarity in a global partnership between churches always requires a critical appraisal of governmental interventions to assure a continuing and effective witness.


In conclusion, opening the church door to government funding of a basic function like salaries can only compromise the integrity of the church and mute a valid prophetic voice on other questionable government policies and practices.


The only option left to the fading voices of support for the separation of church and state is to appeal to those remaining conscience-stricken entities within the UMC to return the moneys received under PPP terms. Then we as a denomination need to have a full discussion of the pros and cons of the issue in policy-making arenas that reflect the global nature of the church and protect the integrity of the whole body.


  1. I applaud pastor Harmon's contribution regarding the huge mistake that Methodists have made on this acceptance of government money. I wrote to the News Service raising these objections and got a note thanking me for my in-put but my objections were not published. Can we honestly say that churches have put any money into the treasury from which these funds were dished out? We better give the money back.

  2. Absolutely agree. The church should never take government funding. That makes us beholden to the governmen. Bad policy.

  3. Thank you so much for this long overdue analysis. The lack of theological reflection in our embrace of this program was shocking.