When Church Becomes State: Do Religious Groups Want to Take Over the Government's Role?

When you’re in the Peace Corps, you expect culture shock. But it’s generally not supposed to come from your countrymen. Among many foreign experiences I had in Honduras a decade ago, interpreting for a brigade of fundamentalist Christian doctors was perhaps the most disturbing.

They set up their operations in our dance hall, triage at the entrance and stations of doctors inside. They brought enough free medicine to put Pfizer on notice and dispensed it generously to the hordes who had walked up to four hours seeking a few moments of attention to make up for a lifetime without medical care. This, of course, seemed a right and noble thing.

But then I noticed that, in addition to the expected diagnostic questions, the Spanish-speakers manning triage kept asking "Es Ud. evangelico o catolico?" Tragically, only the first answer got you into the queue. While I quickly rushed out to let my neighbors know that they were all evangelicals for the day, I was horrified that these good samaritans deemed this an acceptable way to ration their aid. Here was public assistance with strings attached; a foreshadowing of when church becomes state. This may have happened far away in a "banana republic," but our Banana Republicans seem determined to bring this home to stay.

Weeks ago, readers of this site were rightly fuming when Congress threw another $50 million down the abstinence-only wishing well. Right-wing intentions to police sexuality by restricting abortion, blocking access to birth control and opposing marriage equality are well known. Equally clear are their desires to eviscerate social assistance, visible through efforts to block a public option for health care, privatize education by making public schools undesirable and cut assistance to people in need.

Much ink has been spilled and many explanations offered for why the right seems determined to demand government interference in matters of sexuality and so eager to block government involvement in matters of welfare. They care a lot about who we’re sleeping with but it’s on us to afford buying a bed.

This seeming contradiction has been characterized, effectively in my view, as stemming from beliefs about the very nature of the relationship between citizen and state. It is a relationship that can be and indeed is often likened to that of a parent and child. If you believe that the parental (read: governmental) role is to enforce a worldview of adherence to authority, individualism and self-reliance, these inconsistencies -- and let’s face it the corresponding ones we hold dear on the left -- make a bit more sense.

But what if, while true, this explanation is just part of the tale?

What seem like two contradictory missions, one for government intrusion and the other against government involvement may actually prove one coherent and effective strategy. By eliminating (or at least drastically crippling) government assistance, proponents of conservative ideology force the public to turn to the most likely remaining source of aid: the church. Houses of worship have always been an incredible haven for those in dire need -- but now in too many communities they are the only refuge.

Current conditions, especially as state governments are ripping more seams in our threadbare social safety net, mean a continuation of this trend. When public schools are too horrible to consider, people enroll their children in the cheapest private option: parochial schools. When food stamps, WIC and the like dry up, people turn to food pantries almost always operated by religious institutions.

And as they spend more time in certain kinds of churches and, perhaps eventually as a requirement to receive this aid, they will absorb and then transmit the moral beliefs of the religious right. When free clinics and non-profit health services can no longer pay their rent or their staff -- will churches become the provider of last resort? We may find ourselves in triage struggling to assert religious beliefs we don’t hold or at least aren’t interested in offering up as a pre-condition for assistance. Some day soon it may not only become even harder to get an abortion, you may need to declare your opposition to it just to get bread.

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