What if, one hundred years ago, the American people had decided to amend the Constitution to provide a system of public churches in towns across America. Imagine the following conversation in 1993:
Advocate of Religious Freedom: We have a terrible problem with the public-church system. It was a big mistake to set up public churching in America a hundred years ago. We never should have done it.
Advocate of Public Churching: What do you mean?
Advocate of Religious Freedom: By the time they graduate from public churches, children hate God, the Bible, and most concepts of morality and ethics. Ministers and their lobbyists are constantly calling for higher taxes to fund the ever-burgeoning church budgets. And although church taxes continue to rise, the situation just gets worse.
Advocate of Public Churching: I can’t argue with you. We certainly do have a religion crisis in America. And it seems to get worse every year. Why scores on the Religious Aptitude Test have fallen continuously for the past twenty years. But what can we do about it?
Advocate of Religious Freedom: You are probably going to think this is too extreme. I believe that we should repeal all compulsory-attendance laws and church taxes and then sell the public churches to the highest bidder at public auction. Parents should have the freedom and responsibility for rearing their children.
Advocate of Public Churching: Are you crazy? Do you hate religion? What has come over you? Don’t you realize how important religion is? Where did you come up with this idea? — certainly not in the public churches you attended as a child.
Advocate of Religious Freedom: I fully recognize how important religion is. But I also believe that freedom is important. I plan to send my children to church anyway. But should we force others to send their children to church?
Advocate of Public Churching: You and I are responsible parents. But most parents are not like us. They are totally irresponsible.
Advocate of Religious Freedom: I wonder if the consequences would be that horrendous.
Advocate of Public Churching: Why, religion and morality are vitally important to a society. America would not exist as a nation if its citizenry were not taught about God, the Bible, and moral and ethical principles. If people were not required to send their children to church, there would be total chaos, gross immorality, and widespread debauchery. Society would be filled with liars, thieves, cheats, and murderers. In fact, has it not occurred to you that some parents might even have their children worship Satan?
Advocate of Religious Freedom: If we get rid of public churching, parents would have the freedom and responsibility of raising their children in the manner they deem best. Some parents would send their children to private churches. Others would use the home to teach their children about God. Still others would teach their children that there is no God. A minority would teach them to worship Satan. But don’t you think that parents, not the state, should have the ultimate right of control over these decisions?
Advocate of Public Churching: Absolutely not. You yourself have admitted that some parents would not raise their children properly. And I have a stake in this: those children are going to grow up, and I am going to have to bear the cost of their lack of morality and ethics.
Advocate of Religious Freedom: Don’t you believe it’s possible that society will grow more moral if we get rid of public churching?
Advocate of Public Churching: More moral? Now I know you have fallen off your rocker!
Advocate of Religious Freedom: If children are not forced to learn about God, maybe they will be more apt to do so on their own. Moreover, with freedom and responsibility, people might gain a stronger sense of morality and ethics.
Advocate of Public Churching: Well, even if you were right, privatizing the public-churching system would be sending the wrong message. We would be telling people that religion was not important. And you forget something else: if we didn’t have public churches, where would the poor go to church?
Advocate of Religious Freedom: I don’t think that would be a problem. People who have more would be willing to help those who have less. The wealthier members of society would see to it that the poor had churches to attend.
Advocate of Public Churching: You really are a dreamer! Under your system, only the rich would have churches.
Advocate of Religious Freedom: I cannot prove it to you, but I do not doubt that the poor would have churches to attend.
Advocate of Public Churching: Your idea is too extreme. You could never persuade the American people to give up their system of public churching.
Advocate of Vouchers: I have been silently standing here during this entire conversation. I believe both of you make some good points. The public-church system certainly is in crisis. And I am convinced that the only solution is to end public churching. But it is also true that this idea is too radical for the American people to accept. And it certainly would not have any acceptance in respectable circles. I have the perfect compromise: a voucher system for public and private churches.
Advocate of Religious Freedom: What would that entail?
Advocate of Vouchers: Parents would be given vouchers by the state. They could present these vouchers at either a public or private church. This would expand parental control over which church parents choose to send their children. And the new competition between public and private churches would increase the quality of religious training.
Advocate of Religious Freedom: But wouldn’t you still be forcing parents to send their kids to church? And wouldn’t you still be taxing people to pay for the churches?
Advocate of Vouchers: In the short run, yes. But vouchers would ultimately destroy the public-churching system.
Advocate of Religious Freedom: How can you be so certain? And would you tell people that your ultimate goal is to end public churching?
Advocate of Vouchers: Of course not. That would be poor strategy. People favor public churching. Instead, we would talk to them about “expanding parental choice” and “increasing competition in the churches.” And while we can’t be certain that vouchers would make people more religious, it’s better to try something than nothing at all.
Advocate of Religious Freedom: But wouldn’t we need new staffs to prepare, handle, distribute, and monitor the vouchers? Wouldn’t private churches that take the vouchers come under more governmental control? And wouldn’t the voucher recipients — public and private churches alike — fight viciously for the continuation of church taxes and compulsory-attendance laws? And won’t all of this make the situation worse than it already is?
Advocate of Vouchers. Perhaps. But the American people will never approve of freedom of religion. You’re not being practical.
Advocate of Public Churching: Religion is too important to be left up to the free market.
Advocate of Vouchers: Even though religious liberty is, in fact, the solution, you will never be taken seriously. Vouchers are the perfect compromise.
Advocate of Religious Freedom: Principles cannot be compromised. They can only be abandoned. The only solution to America’s religious woes is to repeal compulsory-attendance laws and church taxes and to sell off the public churches. It is time to end public churching. It is time to adopt freedom of religion.