EHRENREICH: Faith-based Backfire?

Ah, the ingratitude! When "President" Bush proposed to redirect social spending through "faith-based" organizations, he must have been expecting the Christian Right to burst into a chorus of hallelujahs at the prospect of being able to proselytize the wayward poor while doling out their food stamps and fuel-oil vouchers. But no. Pat Robertson has responded to the promised federal largesse by bitching and moaning about the possibility that it will go to the wrong sort of faith-based organization, such as the Hare Krishnas, the Scientologists, the Moonies, or the Nation of Islam. Some of these, he alleges, use "brainwashing techniques" and imagine that their leader is the messiah -- which are frightful errors, of course, unless your religion happens to be Christianity.

And that's not the half of it. When Robertson dug into pagan imagery to describe Bush's faith-based initiative as a "Pandora's box," he forgot to mention the Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs, Jains, Wiccans, the adherents of Shinto, Santeria, and Voudun, or the members of peyote cults and followers of the Great Spirit, the Great Goddess, and Odin. According to The New York Times, all together, America boasts 1,350 "sects and denominations," a likely world record, even compared to the religiously promiscuous Roman Empire in the time of Gladiator. We may be the most religious of the industrialized nations -- in terms of the proportion of the population that claims to believe in Unseen Beings and gathers regularly to commune with them -- but we are also the most religiously disorganized, diverse, and confused.

This may be why the U.S. lacks a uniform legal definition of "religion" that could be used to guide the Bush Administration in its distribution of faith-based charitable grants. A cursory scan of the relevant legal literature reveals that, to qualify as a religion for tax exemptions, a group should be (a) incorporated and (b) claim a membership larger than a single nuclear family. It helps, too, if the group boasts accessories like "sacrament, ritual, [and] liturgy," and meets regularly for some purpose other than to discuss its progress toward achieving tax-exempt status. Nothing about size, though, or the content of those sacraments and rituals. Clearly anyone with imagination and legal counsel can start his or her own religion today and be ready to apply for funds from the new Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives as soon as it opens for business.

If you doubt your ability to come up with an entire new religion from scratch, and no Unseen Being has volunteered to dictate the instructions to you, there is plenty of more accessible help available. The Universal Life Church, for example, will ordain you for free, entirely by e-mail. Or, if you prefer your own church, check out Minister Charles Simpson, whose recent spam to hotmail account holders announced his "power to make you a LEGALLY ORDAINED MINISTER within forty-eight hours!!!!" For a mere $29.95, you can "MARRY your BROTHER, SISTER, or your BEST FRIEND!! Don't settle for being the BEST MAN OR BRIDE'S MAID‚" and conduct funerals ("Don't settle for a minister you don't know!!"). Best of all, if you "WANT TO START YOUR OWN CHURCH," you can in do so in a heartbeat, just as soon as you receive your certificate "IN COLOR, WITH GOLD SEAL" and "SHIPPING IS FREE!!!"

Why, though, limit yourself to inventing a new religion or church? In the debate over Bush's initiative, the universal assumption has been that the term "faith-based organization" is coterminous with "religion," but the Encyclopedia Britannica states firmly that "No definition allows for identification of 'faith' with 'religion.' |" Scientology, for example, is one of the groups lining up for the new federal largesse. But what is an outfit that purports to teach the "science" of Dianetics doing in the "faith-based" category?

Scientology isn't the only faith-free "religion." Many well-known and respected religions -- such as the Vedism of ancient India or, in Luther's opinion, pre-Reformation Catholicism -- have required little or no "faith" at all. All you had to do was carry out the specified rituals and show up for the grand animal sacrifices (in the case of Vedism) or the mimed human sacrifice known as the mass (in the case of Catholicism). Nor, strictly speaking, should religions in which the relevant Unseen Beings actually and routinely manifest themselves be considered to be based on "faith." Since followers of Voudun and Candomblé, for example, often experience "possession" by a deity, no "faith" or "belief" is required: The "Unseen" Beings are a palpable fact of life, making these some of the world's rare knowledge-based religions.

Conversely, one can think of plenty of "faith-based" cults that would consider the label of "religion" an insult. Do you believe in the "historical mission of the proletariat" and "the inevitable triumph of socialism"? Do you get together regularly with friends who share these beliefs? Good, you and your pals clearly qualify as a "faith-based organization." Or perhaps you are a "market fundamentalist," holding that the capitalist market will -- if given enough time and, of course, limitless freedom from regulation, trade barriers, etc. -- uplift the downtrodden and solve all social ills. If market fundamentalism is a legitimate "faith," it may be that the privatization of welfare to corporations like Lockheed and Maximus, initiated with Clinton's welfare reform, was an early experiment in the devolution of federal social programs to "faith-based organizations."

The real question, which so far not even the most ardent church-and-state separationists are raising, is: Why this odd privileging of faith over say, knowledge or reason? Recall that Webster's offers as a general definition of faith: "firm or unquestioning belief in something for which there is no proof." Would we want a faith-based defense system, for example, in which bombs are to be deflected by prayer? Or faith-based Medicare ("say two Hail Marys and call me in the morning")? The New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman has proposed, in a rare moment of levity, a faith-based system of air traffic control -- although, truth be told, we already have that.

It may be, however, that our faith-addled President lacks sufficient faith in faith himself, because his executive order establishing faith-based charitable social services contains the inconsistent requirement that such projects be "results oriented," suggesting that they will be evaluated by post-Enlightenment methods involving empiricism and objective measurements. But don't let that deter you from applying for a grant for your personal religion's social service project: You can always assert, as a faith-based sort of person, that you truly believe it's working.

Barbara Ehrenreich is a columnist for The Progressive and the author, most recently, of Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in Boom-Time America.


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