As President Bush has gone around Congress and behind the public’s back in the past four years to spread his faith-based initiative throughout the government, serious issues begin to arise.
When Congress refused to pass his proposals to lower the long-standing barriers against spreading the gospel in publicly funded social services programs, Bush used administrative rules to integrate religion into social welfare services. He established faith-based offices in ten federal agencies, including The Department of Agriculture, the Agency for International Development and the Department of Commerce, increased funding for religious-sponsored programs and connected a vast network of religious groups, which Republicans used in the 2004 election.
Such changes now allow churches to discriminate based on religious belief, and to use federal funds to renovate and build places of worship and proselytize. In practical terms, religion is creeping into social services as never before.
Once considered a “cult,” Rev. Sun Myung Moon and his Unification Church receive government grants to teach “healthy marriage” programs. Josephine Hauer, a Unification leader, works for the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and told a seminar of religious leaders in Oakland California, “I want to make this a marriage culture.” The seminar was sponsored by a $366,179 grant from HHS.
Richard Panzer, another Unification leader, runs Free Teens USA, which received a $475,000 grant for after-school abstinence programs in New Jersey. David Capprara, former president of a group funded by Moon’s Washington Times Foundation, currently runs the U.S. Corporation for National and Community Service, which oversees groups such as the AmeriCorps Vista.
Although he criticized the Faith-Based Initiative as “a Pandora’s box,” Pat Robertson, founder of the right-wing Christian Coalition, received a $500,000 grant from HHS for Operation Blessing, to support international food relief. Overall, funds to religious groups from the HHS increased 41 percent-from 483 to 680 programs-in 2003 and now account for $1.17 billion of social service funds. Florida even has a “faith-based” prison–the first in the nation.
According to Wilfred McClay, professor of history and humanities at the University of Tennessee, Bush’s changes are “a dramatic change” from past practices. The push to encourage religious groups to address social problems is a continuation of Clinton’s welfare reform, which allowed religious organizations to compete for social welfare service funds.
McClay points out that the separation of church and state goes back to early American church leaders such as Roger Williams. McClay predicts that there will be “lots of rhetoric” but not much legislative or executive action on the issue in the coming four years. “Misgivings about emphasizing the ‘armies of compassion’ don’t always come from secular groups,” McClay emphasizes, “but also from religious groups afraid that the threat to their religious mission will be corrupted by government money.”
Tom Barry, policy director for the Interhemispheric Resource Center, traces religious involvement in government from Ronald Reagan, who based U.S. foreign policy on moral clarity combined with military might. Since then, a number of think tanks along with conservative and neo-conservative groups began framing foreign policy in moral terms.
“These groups want to spread Judeo-Christian values around the world,” says Barry. “They support a national security policy based on preventive war to spread U.S. ethical and moral values as superior to other values.”
Bush contributed to the so-called cultural war by rejecting the separation of church and state “in favor of rhetorical and policy initiatives that brought religion not only into the public sphere but also directly into government,” says Barry. Right-wing policy groups are infiltrating the U.N., which the Christian right formerly criticized as secular, in order to reshape the agenda. Groups such as the Family Research Council and the American Life League seek U.N. status to oppose abortion, restrict women’s rights to birth control and promote “traditional values.”
While there is opposition to integrating government and religion within the religious community, Mark Silk, director of the Leonard E. Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life at Trinity College, finds that Bush relies upon an activist base of Republicans, composed primarily of white faith-based evangelicals. Historically, religious leaders opposed government funding of religious groups primarily because of anti-Catholicism.
“There was no way conservative Protestants wanted to underwrite a Catholic parochial education,” says Silk. “But after Protestants established their own schools to avoid integration, they changed.”
Whether religious belief helps people overcome social problems remains to be seen, but Silk points out that many religious groups, such as Catholic Charities, chose to become secular social service providers. The friction begins when they proselytize and become political.
“It’s tough when issues become identified in religious communities as matters of faith rather than public issues that need compromise,” Silk says. “There’s always a concern when religion creates an unbridgeable divide.”
Compromise becomes impossible when religious groups, which hold to “God’s will,” refuse to make accommodations with secular interests. The last time groups failed to compromise was over slavery. Although conditions today aren’t as volatile as they were during Lincoln’s time, when people are unprepared to compromise, civil war is often the result.
DON MONKERUD is an Aptos, California-based writer who follows politics. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org