- The new state budget massively subsidizes a list of far-right evangelical groups
- Religious school tuition vouchers, fake clinics, and direct grants to churches are plainly inappropriate
- The religious right is slowly becoming dependent on taxpayer subsidies to survive
In the acclaimed HBO series The Righteous Gemstones, the character Uncle Baby Billy (played by actor Walton Goggins) plays a washed-up televangelist constantly on the prowl for his next big score. The Uncle Baby Billy character has become a favorite of the internet as an example of the instantly recognizable crooked evangelical pastor archetype, who exploits the trust and faith of his flock to accumulate enormous personal wealth, usually through dubious means. In an era of many high-profile evangelical fraudsters like Pat Robertson (who died earlier this year with an estimated personal fortune of $100 million), Franklin Graham (estimated net worth of $20 million) and Jerry Falwell Jr. (estimated net worth of $100 million, and upon whose family the Righteous Gemstones is loosely based), the slapstick moral arc almost writes itself.
Yet with declining church membership and winnowing donations, the American evangelical movement has recently set its sights on a new cash cow: the government. Once the religious right’s greatest enemy, the government is quickly becoming its fastest-growing revenue stream. North Carolina’s new state budget, passed by the Republican supermajority just last month, includes a major cash windfall for the network of extremely conservative evangelical groups across the state. The new budget enacts a massive transfer of taxpayer resources to these radical, reactionary groups, many of which are openly political, and offer few if any services to the general public.
Directly funding churches
As reported by the News & Observer, the new state budget included millions of dollars in direct state grants to churches and religious organizations. Just a few examples include:
- $4 million to the Mooresville Area Christian Mission (Iredell)
- $1.5 million to the Community Church of Mt. Pleasant (Cabarrus county)
- $100,000 to the Carolina Christian Academy (Davidson)
According to state and federal law, public money may not be used for sectarian purposes, and must be for activities that are for “public purposes only.” Spokespeople for many of the groups who received funding insisted that this is what they do. Yet it’s clear this isn’t true. Many of the evangelical churches receiving funding – for example, Mt. Pleasant’s Community Church – publicly proclaim their discrimination against broad classes of people, especially those who identify as LGBTQ. A sectarian private school like the Carolina Christian Academy does not serve the public by definition.
No similar Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist or atheist/agnostic organization received any such direct funding in the state budget, which is also a very telling omission.
“Crisis pregnancy centers”
The new state budget directed over $20 million to so-called “crisis pregnancy centers” (CPCs), a particularly insidious strategy widely employed by the anti-abortion Right to prevent abortions by lying to women about their healthcare. There are many such groups in North Carolina, and they specifically target low-income women with fewer options and less access to medical care.
Democratic State Senator Natasha Marcus broke down the CPC scam on the State Senate floor, in a video that gained national attention. Marcus laid bare how most of the organizations that are now receiving millions of taxpayer dollars have essentially no reporting or oversight, no identifiable physical presence or leadership, and in some cases, are literally a shell organization created by shady church entrepreneurs. One such group, LifeLink Carolina, which received a whopping $12.5 million direct grant, was cited by the state just a few years ago for spending previous grant money on religious literature and Bible study courses, in plain violation of federal law.
The $20 million of state money these organizations are receiving will go to helping expand their operations, hire more staff and directly contribute to harming women’s health in North Carolina, leaving more non-state funds for them to proselytize and engage in electoral work.
The voucher scam
One of the most controversial parts of the new state budget was the massive expansion of the state’s school voucher program, which subsidizes tuition at private religious schools at the expense of public schools. Under the expansion as written, the voucher program could receive as much as a half-billion dollars annually by 2032. The voucher program is expected to wipe $200 million out of North Carolina’s public school system just in the next three years alone.
This staggering amount of state money has some fraudsters seeing dollar signs. With the promise of free money from the state, with almost no restrictions or oversight (such as curriculum or testing standards) and a history of fraud, the voucher program is an almost irresistible target. Take, for example, Sam Currin, a Republican former state judge and convicted felon fraudster who recently published an op/ed titled, “Should Your Church Start a School?” The tsunami of state funds available for vouchers, with few if any hard requirements, is virtually tailored to produce a proliferation of junk “schools” aimed at vacuuming up voucher money, without any real intention to educate.
The broader view
Zooming out, the State of North Carolina is unleashing hundreds of millions of dollars, with few or no strings attached, for far-right religious groups across the state. Many of these groups are openly and vocally political, and serve as important messaging partners and get-out-the-vote foot soldiers for the Republican party. Because money is fungible, the infusion of North Carolina taxpayers’ cash to the state’s right-wing evangelical movement’s basic operational needs will result, as intended, in a huge boost to these groups’ resources for electoral activity. This money will fund new staff, materials, training, travel, meetings, and in some cases, whole new buildings that will be put to use for partisan political ends.
The plain motivation for this massive state subsidization program is the American far-right evangelical movement’s overall decline. Americans, especially younger ones, are fleeing evangelical Christianity and church attendance in droves. The American evangelical church, beset on one side by a rampant sexual abuse crisis and an epidemic of fraud and political hucksterism on the other, has plainly lost the political power, to say nothing of the social trust, it held just a decade or two ago. And perhaps that is for the best. It would plainly be better for any healthy religious movement to focus on the spiritual realm, instead of the political one. Yet with so much money to be made playing politics, some evangelical leaders may find it hard to resist.