I have a new Mike Keefe cartoon mounted over my desk. It was in the
Denver Post this week. Its three panels are titled: "A short history of
faith-based government programs." The first is "The Crusades;" the
second "The Inquisition" and the third "The Witch Trials."
Faith-based-initiative. Faith in what? Let's be honest and call it
religion-based politics, or if you prefer, politically based religion.
As Molly Ivins put it, "This is not, actually, a totally terrible idea,
except that it's unconstitutional and guaranteed to get screwed up in
Religion and government are a fatal mix. Down through the centuries,
when the two got mixed up together, chaos almost always followed. The
signers of the Declaration of Independence knew it. The religious
pluralism that characterized colonial America demanded some kind of
unique accommodation in the polity of the new nation. And they gave us
that accomodation in the First Amendment. This was no accident on
"State" is about rules and law and maintaining a functional society for
everyone. We are American citizens -- all colors and beliefs and
--and we all function and battle with each other under the same
constitution. We cannot choose our government. That was done for us
200 years ago and it has worked quite well, thank you.
"Church" is about faith in the existence of something bigger than we
are, something that we never can fully understand, but believe. In
America we are free to believe in and become a part of whatever church
or synagogue or temple we personally choose. The latest figure I was
able to find is that there are 800 denominations in the United States -
each different from all the others. We can choose our religion or lack
In spite of the carefully selected words, "faith-based initiative," the
meaning of this project is clear. President Bush said so when he met
with a group of religious leaders last week and promised them a new
version of "reinventing government" with a religious cast. This is
very specific in its statement of objective. And it is a terribly
expensive payback to the Religious Right which helped elect him.
"This is going to be an all-out battle," said Joseph Conn, a spokesman
Americans United for Separation of Church and State. "A lot of people
see this as one of the biggest violations of church-state separation
that we've seen in American history."
It is unconstitutional. Yes, but that's not all.
This new proposal cuts two ways. Because religious organizations are
exempt from many civil rights laws, they are allowed to discriminate on
the basis of their religious beliefs and teachings about race, religion,
sexual orientation, gender and pregnancy status. But what the
government funds it regulates, so the churches might be forced to take
actions in opposition to their beliefs.
On the other side, if the political wing of organized religion were to
become strong enough to control government, they could force
discrimination on all of us according to their religious beliefs.
When they get too chummy, either "State" is in control and tells
religion what to do. Or "Church" gains the power and tells government
what to do. Let's keep 'em separate.
The idea of government helping to finance charitable projects has been
with us for many years. Organizations like Catholic Charities and
Lutheran Social Services have been providing government sponsored care
for a century or more because they set up separate non-profit
organizations providing non-sectarian social programs. Those agencies
and others like them do not discriminate. They do not evangelize.
Locally, in talking to religious leaders, I got reactions varying from
"we would move very cautiously" to "I wouldn't touch that money." Greg
Kail, spokesman for the Catholic Archdiocese in Denver said in the
Denver Post, "It's not possible to separate our religious beliefs from
what we do." Nor should it be.
Marvin Olesky, whom Mr. Bush praises as compassionate conservatism's'
leading thinker said, "Religious groups can help the needy only if they
dish out religious teaching and inspiration along with hot meals."
Molly Ivins quotes Rep. Billy Williamson of Texas, "Yew CAAAAAAANTtrade
the cross for the cookie jar."