The rules for the relationship between church and state vary considerably from country to country. In some countries the government still has a considerable influence in the church, and vice versa, while other countries have a very clear separation between religious and secular authority. In the Netherlands the Dutch Reformed Church once had a privileged position, but today all religions are equal before the law, and there is a strict separation between religion and government. In the United States the situation is a bit more complicated. Although many Americans pride themselves on the fact that there is an absolute separation between church and state, I have often wondered about many things one comes across when one gets to know the U.S. a little bit. When I first visited an American church, I wondered why there was a national flag on the podium. I also found it strange that the Senate has a “chaplain” (even though he happens to be a Seventh-day Adventist), and that the president invariably ends an important speech with “God bless America”. From time to time, the president and other important leaders even organize a “prayer breakfast”. And it is well known that the current president has a more than healthy relationship with some conservative evangelical leaders.
Seventh-day Adventists have always stressed the importance of a strict separation between church and state. Initially, in some countries this even meant that people were told not to participate in elections, and being active in politics was totally taboo. That position has since been abandoned almost everywhere in the world, and nowadays church members are urged to participate in elections. Being active in politics now brings praise rather than criticism. Today several countries in the South have Adventist government leaders, ministers or high-ranking civil servants. In the U.S Ben Carson, an Adventist, made a bid for the presidency during the 2017 presidential elections. He is now a minister in Trump’s cabinet. Until recently, a political party in the Netherlands was headed by a member of the Adventist Church.
But taking money from the government remained a tricky business. In Europe the Adventist Church, in general, was less hesitant in that regard than in the US. If other faith communities were given certain facilities, European Adventists thought, they should also be able to make use of these. This was especially true concerning the financing of educational institutions. But in the United States it remained a different matter. The international ADRA office in the U.S. had no problem applying for public development funds, but accepting money for schools was always much more sensitive, and the Church certainly did not want public money for direct church activities. This position was not entirely consistent, by the way, because the Church does not object to the advantage of tax exemption and is happy to make use of a provision that gives ordained ministers a considerable tax advantage for their “parsonage”. (This is a point that plays a role in the background of the battle for the ordination of female pastors).
The Corona crisis has changed a lot of things. In a number of countries the government has allocated a large amount of money to ensure that, in this time of crisis, as many companies and small businesses as possible will survive, and that social organizations – including churches – can continue to pay their personnel. In some countries the Adventist Church has decided to make use of this provision. The British Union, for example, has sent part of its pastors on “furlough” for a number of months. During this period the British state provides a substantial subsidy for the salary payments. Newbold College also made use of this government support. And in Belgium, the Church utilizes a similar scheme.
The American government came up with a large financial support package to help companies and organizations survive. This support was also available for churches and religious institutions. The question now was whether the Adventist Church in the US would apply for this aid. The leadership of the church in the United States and Canada (the North American Division) decided to advise all Adventist church organizations not to apply and to remain with the traditional position that accepting money from the government would be a serious violation of the principle of separation of church and state. But what happened? Church revenues decreased significantly in the past months. Cuts had to be made in many instances. In several places the workforce had to be reduced. The help offered by the government was now very attractive. And so, many conferences and church institutions in the US decided to apply for the government subsidy, in spite of the advice from the higher organization. From reports in the independent Adventist press (Spectrum and Adventist Today), we now know that at least 55 Adventist organizations have applied for, and have received, financial support and that this could amount to as much as 120 million dollars. To date, the General Conference has refrained from commenting.
I have no problem at all with the Church accepting this assistance, at this exceptional time. But it does surprise me how easily a principle can be abandoned, when the need arises. I cannot help but wonder whether it is easier to abandon a principle when money is at stake than when it concerns other matters that might also need to be reviewed! Well, maybe we should regard it in a positive light: change is, after all, a possibility!