DUBYA, DEFENDER OF THE FAITH
What's Behind the Faith-Based Initiative?
Bruce Lincoln is the Caroline E. Haskell Professor of History of Religions at
the University of Chicago.
You have to give W. credit. He doesn't comport himself like someone who lost the popular vote by half a million and needed all his father's horses and all his father's men, not to mention five eminences noires, to boost him into the Oval Office. Some people would walk softly under the circumstances, but Texans are made of sterner stuff. Besides, he has debts to pay.
Among the largest is to the religious right, which rescued him in South Carolina when his campaign faltered, and brought him more (and more highly committed) workers, donors, and voters than any other group. The horse they backed won, if lamely and barely, and it's time to cash in their chits. Typically, this involves a healthy feed at the federal trough, but in this case First Amendment concerns pose inconvenient obstacles. What's a fellow to do?
Shift the terms of debate, for one. Last Monday, our new president thus announced his intention to restructure things so federal funds can reach "faith-based and community" programs and groups. Though the phrase rolls neatly from his disingenuous lips, the terms in it are far from equal in weight. "Community" is feel-good distraction and filler, there never having been the slightest problem in funding community groups. Further, the government has long funded charitable organizations that are related to, but separate from, religious denominations (Lutheran Social Services, for example). In contrast, "faith-based" in his usage serves as a euphemism for groups that advance religious beliefs as an inextricable part of their mission and yearn for federal largesse to underwrite their proselytizing.
That's how it works under the terms of the "charitable choice" bill passed by Congress in 1996, with John Ashcroft as its sponsor. This legislation enabled Texas to fund Jobs Partnership of Washington County, a "faith-based" group that requires Bible study of the people it counsels on how "to find employment through a relationship with Jesus Christ." Kentucky ponied up to Baptist Homes for Children, which fires employees who happen to be gay. Both cases have resulted in litigation, and they give a taste of things to come. In actual practice, "faith-based" will mean not just religious, but -- make no mistake -- evangelical, charismatic, and fundamentalist Christian, leavened with enough token admixture of Jews, Catholics, and others to permit denial of obvious bias.
Mr. Bush's people say they want any group with proven results to apply, but they fail to explain just who in the administration will review Pat Robertson's claims of success and act on his applications. Forgive me if I am not reassured. The White House insists this initiative does not amount to pork barrel patronage of an unprecedented sort or sub-contracting of basic social service to a dubious band of the faithful. Rather, it comes in recognition that faith has been the element missing in welfare programs. It can help addicts kick their habit, so we are told, and it buoys the chronically unemployed in their search for work. The evidence for this thesis is weak and largely anecdotal (Alcoholics Anonymous being a noteworthy exception), but the president's life is said to bear witness. Still, even were these claims the purest Gospel truth, the constitutional questions would still remain.
The First Amendment mandates separation of Church and State in no uncertain terms, and for very strong reasons. Above all is the founders' concern that the state be scrupulously even-handed, since favor shown any religious group abridges all others' freedom of worship. Accordingly, one must ask, if "faith-based" groups can now compete for federal grants, which groups will receive these funds and who will be denied them? Who will decide and on what basis?
Mr. Bush's people say they want any group with proven results to apply, but they fail to explain just who in the administration will review Pat Robertson's claims of success and act on his applications. Forgive me if I am not reassured. Instead, I envision a country where untold billions of taxpayers' dollars flow through the government to those religious groups who backed winning candidates, just as parishioners' contributions flow through their churches to the candidates on whom they wager. All very neat, tidy, and profitable (for the winners, at least), but not very good for the life of faith or the good of the nation.
In addition to blocking even the tiniest baby steps that might point toward establishment of a state church ("Congress shall make no law..."), the First Amendment also guards against another serious danger. This is the temptation for the state to co-opt religious leaders, appropriate religious symbols, and play on religious sentiments, subverting them all to rally support for leaders and policies that cannot be defended in rational debate. Divine right kings used to posture as "defender of the faith," but the presidents of a democratic republic ought resist such misguided and manipulative grandiosity. Strict separation of Church and State, as mandated by the Constitution, protects the independence, dignity, and integrity of both institutions. Mr. Bush would be wise to observe this time-honored principle and find other, less costly ways to pay off the debts he contracted.
Published: Feb 05 2001