A few days ago a devastating fire destoyed a historic Chicago landmark, the southside meeting place of the Pilgrim Baptist Church. It is still being determined if the walls of the old church are structurally sound enough to allow them to remain when the church is rebuilt. This historic church has been the religious home of a number of famous people. Before the building became a church, about seventy-five years ago, it was a historic Chicago synagogue.  This particular tragedy has struck many Chicagoans deeply and the outpouring of public response has been nothing short of amazing as financiers and friends have pledged large sums of money toward the rebuilding project. 

Following the devastating fire Governor Rod Blagojevich promised one million dollars of state funds to the rebuilding of the church. (He also promised a personal gift of $1,000.) Not only is the governor’s pledge of Illinois funds surprising, since he is a Democrat, but it appears to me to plainly be unconstitutional. The Illinois Constitution (Article 10, Section 3) states: "Neither the General Assembly nor any county, city, town, township, school district, or other public corporation, shall ever make any appropriation or pay from any public fund whatever, anything in aid of any church or sectarian purpose, or to help support or sustain any school, academy, seminary, college, university, or other literary or scientific institution, controlled by any church or sectarian denomination whatever."

Eric Zorn, in the Chicago Tribune (January 12, 2005), appropriately asked: "Where’s the wiggle room into which to slip a million-dollar check?"

The governor’s spokeswoman, in defending state support for Pilgrim Baptist, said the gift was actually meant to rebuild the school which is housed on the church site. She noted that any benefit this gift would have for the church is "incidental." Really?

The governor’s legal counsel has further noted that previous state court rulings have made the Illinois Constitution’s legal statements against such gifts meaningless prohibitions. Sadly, the political element in all of this is all too obvious. Blagojevich is running for re-election this year and few doubt that his desire for black votes in the city is somehow connected to his promise of state charity.

The governor’s adminstration defended his action by citing numerous gifts from the state to assorted church projects in the past. This defense seems pretty hollow since these projects have included programs like soup-kitchens, job-placement services and drug counseling.

Here is the interesting and disturbing part of the story, at least to me. Neither Republicans nor Democrats, Christians or Jews, first raised the spectre of what was wrong with this improper mingling of church and state. The initial opposition to Blagojevich’s promise came from militant atheist Rod Sherman, who routinely questions such things in Illinois.

Blagojevich’s promise of funds to Pilgrim Baptist Church last week will almost certainly face a court challenge, which will of course be funded by the taxpayer’s money. It is ironic to me that both liberals and conservatives often miss the proper legal separation of church and state when the situation suits them politically. This issue is very important. It seems more than odd to be on the side of the atheist Rod Sherman in this particular issue. Remember, if your church takes government money you will give up a vital and hard won liberty at a great price that may eventually be larger than what you bargained for when you took the political cash.

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  1. Lots January 16, 2006 at 9:06 am

    As I said … you’re pretty good on politics, John! 🙂
    Pragmatism … it’s like pride: you’re almost 100% dependent upon others in order to flag it in your life! And you must be 100% dependent upon Scripture in order to root it out of your heart!
    Lots Tusej

  2. wayne kratzer August 17, 2006 at 2:57 pm

    U. S. history was basically christian, came here for religious freedom. Jefferson went to church in the capital; they gave money to missionaries to Indians. See David Barton and Wallbuilders. wayne

  3. wayne kratzer August 17, 2006 at 2:59 pm

    You seem have a reasonable view. Let us pray for an AWAKENING. wayne

  4. micah March 15, 2007 at 12:42 am

    I remember a good quote: “Freedom of Religion does not mean freedom from religion.”
    I agree with you on your evaluation. I wonder how that relates to people voting for others based on the religion that they tout or profess. It seems that America likes to vote for those who seem to me Christian but merely use it as a ploy for votes. Is there a certain mixing of politics and religion, church and state here?

  5. John H. Armstrong March 15, 2007 at 7:36 pm

    Yes, an unfortunate and mistaken mixing of Christian faith with political partisanship is a serious problem here. We need Christians with insightfulness to help us think better about political issues and about how we can think about them with real Christian wisdom. We do not need churches lining up voters based on special agendas that align the church with one party. History is replete with the mistakes this brings and we are seeing it on the left and right in modern America.
    Inform voters? Yes. Teach them how to apply biblical principles to political concerns? Yes. Tell them who specifically to vote for and what party is most in line with Christ? Please, no. Let the church be the church, and preach the gospel and teach Christian ethics. Let the political parties do what they do and choose candidates and make policy but do not mix the two. This is the best way.

  6. Kevin Woosley April 4, 2007 at 2:23 pm

    I would personally have no issue with my state providing funds to assist in the rebuilding of what is both an architecturally and historically significant site.

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