Early in the 19th century, French aristocrat and public servant Alexis de Tocqueville visited the United States and observed how volunteer efforts, or "associations" provided things for the public good. These, he noted, were safeguards against government needing to tax people to provide those things, and they kept everyday Americans engaged in their communities.
When President Donald Trump observed the National Day of Prayer last week by signing an executive order protecting the liberty of religious groups and granting them fair access to government funds, he was continuing that tradition. He also was following the footsteps of former presidents, including Barack Obama and George W. Bush, who enacted similar programs providing public funds to encourage religious charities to do work that otherwise would fall to government.
Churches make up a sizable amount of the modern "associations" that perform public services. Secular organizations also add greatly to the public welfare, but churches tend to provide more of the one-on-one efforts that help the needy.
These are aided by a strong American tradition of charitable giving. Gallup polls have found that more than 80 percent of Americans contribute something to charity each year with 60 percent performing voluntary service of some kind. Modern technology allows everyday Americans to donate rapidly when disaster strikes anywhere in the world.
It's quite natural for an overburdened, deficit-riddled federal government to encourage churches to continue or increase their efforts. And yet, no matter how well-intentioned all parties in this process may be, the effort is laced with potential problems.
The Trump administration took many months to craft its White House Faith and Opportunity Initiative, as the program is called. The Obama administration went through a similar prolonged process. Presumably, this is because of the many ways such efforts might go wrong.
The government, wary of the Constitution's First Amendment, cannot afford to treat any one religion more favorably than another based on belief systems or any factor other than services provided.
Churches, on the other hand, run a substantial risk by accepting federal funds. Even if the current administration may be devoted to religious liberty, a future administration may try to withhold aid based on teachings or doctrines that might be considered politically incorrect. The money must be used to fund services, not the churches themselves.
Under Obama, recipients could ask for referrals to other providers if they were offended by the teachings of a particular church. The Trump administration has removed such language, although beneficiaries remain free to seek help from whichever charity they choose.
After many years of watching these programs thread the needle of proper government interaction with religious organizations, it's safe to say that such programs have yet to cause any major concerns. It's also safe to say, however, that religious charities probably would continue to provide valuable service with or without the government's help.
We see value in Washington acknowledging the role that organized religion, faith and devotion play in attending to the poor and needy. The president's statements on the value of religious liberty were a vital acknowledgment of a foundational principle of freedom vital to the fabric of American life.
That liberty must be zealously safeguarded, just as the intersection of government and religion must be approached carefully and warily by all concerned.