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Unholy Alliance

Ever expanding "faith-based" initiatives are a threat to both church and state.
 
 
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The 30th anniversary of Roe v. Wade has come and gone, and as usual, reproductive rights advocates and abortion foes turned the day into something of a religious holiday -- and an occasion, invariably, to bemoan what has happened in the years since Roe v. Wade. Abortion foes rail about 34 million cases of "infanticide"; proponents note the ever-shrinking availability of abortion and other prenatal health care services, with poor women and women in rural areas of the U.S. now more likely than ever to be unable to find or pay for what should be, under Roe v. Wade, readily available anywhere.

The reasons for the evolution of abortion availability over the years -- how it has shrunk even as support for legal abortion has solidified among the American public -- are mind-bogglingly complex. But at its core, the debate is a religious one. Abortion foes began by insisting that public funds should not be used to carry out (and, later, promote, and, most recently, countenance) what they consider to be a religiously offensive practice. Conversely, abortion rights proponents often feel that the religious belief underlying abortion restrictions -- specifically, that a fetus or embryo is a "preborn child," with "rights" equal to any adult -- is both offensive and preposterous. In essence, one side claims their religion is being imposed upon, and the other claims their rights are being imposed upon by religion.

Into this Gordian knot has charged the Bush Administration, which has been the most aggressive in memory in trying to impose religious beliefs -- its religious beliefs -- on to the American public. And, indeed, the world, as evidenced by the new, White House-inspired U.S. intransigence in global family planning forums.

The Bush crusades have meant an abrupt reversal from Clintontime policy on a number of reproductive and family planning fronts, as well as a far more ostentatious demonstration of the truism that every President must make an ongoing public show of his devoutness. But the flagship of the Bush assault on the separation of church and state has been the White House Office for Faith-Based and Community Initiatives (WHOFFBACI), which has worked quietly and hard to put as many of the country's disadvantaged as possible in a position of needing to rely on religion, not government, for a helping hand -- and has also worked hard to ensure that taxpayer money funds those ecumenically-run programs.

This week, just as the Roe v. Wade anniversary reminded people of what public policy based upon religious belief looks like, word broke that one of the White House's favorite social engineering tools -- the quiet administrative rule change that sidesteps Congress entirely -- was floated this month to dramatically expand the Faith-Based Initiative. The proposed HUD (Dept. of Housing and Urban Development) rule would enable federal tax dollars to be used to build houses of worship, so long as at least some of that house of worship was used for a social program funded under the Faith-Based Initiative.

The potential for abuse is obvious. Almost every church or religious congregation operates social programs of some sort, so who, exactly, wouldn't be eligible for a new church or synagogue or mosque? The rule would seem to be blatantly unconstitutional on its face -- not that that will keep John Ashcroft et al. awake nights.

Liberal groups continue to tee off on the Faith-Based Initiative, both for separation of church and state reasons and because such programs represent a wholesale abandonment of any federal commitment to directly fund social service programs. But there's another, more insidious danger: to the religious groups themselves.

If you're a mullah, pastor, rabbi, minister, priest, or someone higher up on His or Her chain of command, and the Bush Administration comes calling with bucketloads of tax money so that you can administer their social programs, do not walk away. Run. Fast. No -- faster. Churches should never, ever become an agent of Caesar. Let alone a fiscal dependent.

When America's founders built a wall between faith and government, they did so largely because faith institutions, in their day, were far more powerful; the influence of organized religion on matters of state was what they, and successive generations, feared most. But today, it is government that wields extraordinary power, government that claims the right to monitor, control, and/or tax every aspect of our existence.

In much of the country, organized religion already does, in fact, fill a tremendous void once occupied by government programs, without any direct government subsidies at all. Doing good in the community is a core principle of virtually every house of worship. They do this work because they believe it to be holy and righteous and necessary. And that is the danger -- or, at least, the biggest among many -- with the "Faith Based Initiative." Jesus, to pick one example, did not serve the poor because there was a generous grant available to service targeted client populations.

Nor did he apply for money for operating overhead while he healed the sick. But now churches do. Once, healing was a primary ecumenical calling. Then, in the 1960s, the spigot of federal funding opened for faith-based hospitals. Everything changed. The administrators came in, the accountants, the grant writers, the consultants, the government auditors. Suddenly, it became a matter not of healing, but of money. Now, groups like the Seventh Day Adventists squeeze wealth from hospitals and clinics operated across the country -- facilities that turn away the uninsured, because God's work doesn't figure into their very secular budgets.

The needy need what we all do -- housing, food, clothes, health, a job. That's why it's so easy for government agencies to lose sight of their original missions. It can be more lucrative to serve less impoverished clients, or more expedient to heed political trends. How will your church fare? Will it be pursuing the ministry it wants to? Will it feel free to speak out against politicians' policies it perceives as unholy, when those policies are proposed by a major funder? In 20 years, under new management, will we have a chain of 2,800 Union Gospel Missions across the country, with conference rooms and free continental breakfasts -- but no room for the poor at the inn built with a generous HUD subsidy?

Here it comes. The world of well-meaning, morally motivated congregations overwhelmed by grant restrictions, bean-counters, and federal WHOFFBACI social engineers cum bureaucrats. They'll call it God's Work, too. At first. And then they'll set up their own rules to interpret God, just so that all churches are being built under the same, consistent guidelines. And they'll work hard to keep churches in line with the federally approved interpretation of God -- one, for example, that gives personhood to a newly fertilized egg. Should your church object, it will risk losing its tax-exempt status. Or maybe a big fine from the WHOFFBACI Standards officers, or perhaps losing tax-exempt status for that part of their new church they've already told they government they use for their secular social program.

Churches and other religious institutions should serve the poor without state money or blessing -- because it's a spiritual imperative, not because there's funding available. And if George W. Bush offers them our tax money to do it, or offers to write their spiritual beliefs into law, they should refuse. The separation between church and state protects churches, too.