Horowitz, whose policy specialty is analyzing social-service programs, has other concerns. When government starts funding religious charities in a major way, individuals may stop. The wealthy and business groups, traditional funders of charity, may cease writing checks and instead pressure and lobby members of Congress for appropriations. Individual giving will decline.Politicians, in turn, will offer big grants to whichever faith constituents are most important to their re-elections. Imagine how excruciatingly awful the religious discourse in the presidential campaign would be right now if Bush and Gore were in a position to promise funding favors to various denominations, to say nothing of to Buddhist temples. Once politicians start doling out grants as plums to religions, the faiths in turn will be expected to praise incumbents, instead of saying whatever they really think. Could American Catholicism be so free to be adamantly prolife--church figures often strongly criticize politicians on abortion and capital punishment--if a significant chunk of parish operating budgets were controlled by the White House? Religion could become just another special interest group. On this point, Horowitz says he especially fears the specter of overhead funding. The standard overhead language of federal grants not only imposes requirements on the parts of the organization that does not receive support, but has a way of sneaking up on financial structures. "Today a church or synagogue taking its first taxpayer grant may think, what's the harm, if there turns out to be government intrusion, we'll just refuse future grants," Horowitz says. "They wake up in five years to discover that 30% of the minister's salary and 40% of the heating bill are federally funded, and they're afraid to walk away from that money, and meanwhile there's a government bureaucrat on the line saying, 'We'd like to discuss some of the comments you have been making during your services.'"Cizik, of the National Association of Evangelicals, considers such concerns "real, but so far there's no evidence this happens." His organization has been performing refugee resettlement work for half a century partly under federal funds. The grants, he says, "contain a non-proselytizing clause that has never caused us any self-censorship problem." Cizik thinks faith-based organizations should concentrate on drawing up strict guidelines about how and when they would accept public funds, conduct trial runs, and simply be ready to withdraw on the first sign of government interference with beliefs.In a nation that is the most religious in the industrial world, many might suppose it is unrealistic to caution that government funding could backfire by harming faith. But consider Western Europe.In Europe, governments are openly pro-religious in ways inconceivable here. France is officially Catholic, England officially Anglican, Sweden all but officially Lutheran. Public money is routinely used for explicit religious purposes: In Germany, for example, local churches are supported not by donations from members but by a national church tax. And religious observance in Western Europe is stunningly low--just 10% of Britons regularly attend services of any faith, 15% of the French, fewer than 10% of Germans. (The comparable figure is about 45% here.)

It is not hard to imagine that one reason Western Europe shows so little enthusiasm for religion is exactly because government is involved--and in contrast, that one reason so many Americans are believers is that here, faith and government have almost nothing to do with each other. Horowitz shouldn't be alone in worrying: Do we really want to tamper with this?