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Campaign 2000, faith restored

Lehigh, S. (1999, June 27). Campaign 2000, faith restored: We used to keep religion out of politics. No more. The Boston Globe, pp. F1, F5. Politics & Religion.

OVERVIEW

Has there been too much separation between religion and politics? Many—particularly inner city and conservative people—along with many current candidates—think so. Or, must a secular society guard against intrusions from faith based organizations as this writer, the ACLU, Congressman Barney Frank, and many liberals—religious and otherwise—believe? That aspect of the cultural wars is what this article is about.

Leading candidates like George W. Bush and Vice President Al Gore believe there should be a more "charitable union" between church and state...that religious guidelines and values should be part of a national civic revival. Additionally, "Elizabeth Dole, Lamar Alexander, Pat Buchanan, and Gary Bauer (are) all talking about the power and the glory religion has brought to their lives or stressing Christian values..."

Also noted is the irony that political candidates are expressing such religious fervor, so soon after Christian conservatives like Cal Thomas, Ed Dobson, and Paul Weyrich have concluded that religion has failed to change American politics and it was time to give up on faith-based political strategies.

A particular note in this debate is the place of charitable-choice and the use of government money for social work done by religious organizations. In the past, churches like the Roman Catholic have had to form a subsidiary (non- faith-based) organization like Catholic Charities to accept and use federal grants. Actually, some tax money (for summer programs, etc.) has always found its way into church-based or religious organizations helping kids and the homeless in inner cities.

Along with the welfare reform of 1996 came the idea of charitable choice relying on faith-based organizations to deliver government services. This makes such organizations eligible for tax dollars for programs such as youth violence prevention programs, drug treatment, and programs for the homeless. Now candidates are advocating extending services to job-training, counseling, health, and nutritional programs.

Echoing what is often heard in the city, Bush says: " ‘Who better to help those who need help than people of faith who are following a religious imperative to love their neighbors?’ "

Al Gore has come to the same position: " ‘If you elect me president, the voices of faith-based organizations will be integral to the policies set forth in my administration. The moment has come for Washington to catch up with the rest of America.’ "

What is America’s thinking on this subject? Andrew Kohut, director of Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, finds: " ‘Our polling suggests people are much more comfortable mixing religion and politics than they were in the ‘60s, when the separation of church and state was more in keeping with public opinion than it is today.’ "

Why the change? In the analysis of Rabbi David Saperstein, director and counsel for the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, three trends have made politicians more open to encourage religious presence in public policy:

  • Federal budget politics: The programmatic squeeze created by the move from federal entitlement programs to block grants has created a need to rely on private charities for social service previously provided by government.
  • Religious groups rebuffed on more controversial areas such as prayer in school, have focused on winning government support for their charitable work.
  • There is a recognition that faith-based approaches do indeed work for some people.

Still, some churches and groups always refuse government money (from conservative fear of possible strings attached), and others object to government funding of programs run by religious organizations from liberal persuasions.

Behind this issue is the historic evolution of church and state policy. The founding fathers only argued against a single established church; most assumed that church and state would be intertwined. Religious icons and practices have always existed on our money, in our courts, in public oaths of office and Congressional prayers. Gradually, the twentieth century has developed the notion of the separation of church and state. (This, of course, is a counterperspective to that in this article being reviewed.)

This article features negative arguments against this trend. Liberal Protestants like Melissa Rogers, associate general counsel of the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs, doubts that religious organizations can separate their secular social services from their evangelism and faith content:

You can’t separate the secular from the sacred (in religious movements). It is like vanilla flavoring in a cake. It all flows through it.

Barney Frank is an outspoken liberal U.S. Representative who sees faith as the central point of all religious organizations:

Churches are now saying, ‘It is precisely because we inculcate religion and make them better people that you should give us (taxpayer) money.’ My answer to that is, you have a right to do that, but you don’t have a right to have the government pay you to do that.

(Arguing that such policy makes money available to fundamentalists and cults, Frank asks) ‘Would Louis Farrakhan get money?’

Or (the writer of this article continues) the Scientologists? Or, perhaps, the group of wiccan practicing witches at Texas’ Fort Hood Army base that recently got U.S. Representative Bob Barr, a Georgia Republican, so exercised?

To such fears the spokesman for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, Joseph Conn, speaks rather starkly: " ‘If David Karesh’s Branch Davidians were still around, they could apply for money through this program. That sounds extreme, but true.’ "

The Rabbi (Saperstein, noted above) has a religious fear about all this:

Churches and synagogues and mosques will begin to compete for limited funding available, and government will have to choose which groups it thinks can do a better job. This will have an enormous divisive impact on the religious communities of America.

Lehigh’s conclusion picks up on some extreme religious beliefs, as it quotes Voltaire and Mark Twain, and fits charitable choice under Thomas Jefferson’s fear of religious tyranny. This is not an easy issue, but it is at the heart of attempts to understand national character and effective social action.

QUESTIONS FOR REFLECTION AND DISCUSSION

  1. What most impresses you, angers you, or stimulates your desire for dialog in this article?
  2. How would you describe your faith and your political philosophy?
  3. Do you believe that national states should be secular, pluralistic societies rather than being of a particular religious faith?
  4. At what points should religion (or faith) and public policy meet or interact?
  5. Do you think some inner-city churches or the Salvation Army, etc. can sometimes do a better and more efficient job of serving the homeless or disadvantaged young people than a government program can? If so, do you think they should be able to receive government money to run such programs?
  6. From this article and other reading and experience, what do you see as the best arguments for and against charitable choice (the funding of religious programs for social welfare)?
  7. Do you think we can tell the difference between an established religion or church and a cult?

IMPLICATIONS

    • The strengthening of a society’s moral fiber in all positive ways should be a common public concern.
    • Helping the disadvantaged achieve the dignity of self-sufficiency should be a high priority in any society.
    • How religion can contribute to the civic character and public welfare, and how government can protect religious freedom and strength is a most important discussion in these times.

Dean Borgman cCYS