Afraid for the Church-State Wall? Have Faith

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Bush appeals to the nation's mayors to support his faith-based service plan

George W. Bush is back atop the church-state wall, trying to resurrect his besieged plan to get faith-based organizations in the bidding to win federal contracts for social services. The sermon has been amended slightly — or clarified, as White House aides like to put it — to revive legislation that Republican lawmakers have told Bush is dead in its current form. (And that was when they were running the Senate.)

The main proposed modifications have been made right on that legendary wall. First and foremost: further reassurance that under his plan, federal money that goes to religious organizations "must be spent on social services, not worship services." Direct government grants must go into an account that's kept separate from funds from private sources. And individuals must be able to skip the religious component — the prayer service at the homeless shelter — and still get the social services.

Those strictures — along with the one requiring faith-based groups to have the same accountability requirements, including self-audits, as other government contractors — might just be enough to keep plenty of self-respecting religious groups far away from federal bucks and the bureaucratic poking-around that'll come with them. As for any others willing to play the Washington game, be they Christian, Muslim, Scientologist or animist, they'll be equally deserving of a chance to be subcontractors of tax-payer-funded welfare.

The opposition to Bush's plan has made for some strange bedfellows, of course, from religious conservatives like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson who don't want to be in the same bidding pit with those Scientologists and animists, to secular liberals who fear that that church-state wall is crumbling. Americans United for Separation of Church and State calls the plan "unconstitutional, unnecessary and unworkable" — and an editorial in the May issue of its "Church and State" magazine cites the inter- and intra-religion squabbling that has arisen from the debate as an excellent reason to abandon it.

It's also a good reason to give it a try

Why was the wall between church and state erected in the first place? Because the founding fathers, hailing from England, knew all too well what havoc an official state religion could wreak on individual rights (and royal romances). Freedom of religion, freedom from religion, it was all of a piece. They left God off the money ("In God We Trust" didn't come along until after the Civil War), off the flag and out of the Constitution.

But that was when the "church" in "church and state" had more of a capital "C." The wall between them was to keep the government (and its constituents) free of the same kind of church that the Falwells and the Robertsons keep trying to ram through the schoolhouse doors and into teachers' mouths — a Church that wants to be official, monolithic, ubiquitous. State-sanctioned, state-enforced.

Lower-case religion

The kind of church George W. Bush is pushing — at least as far as his plan says — is the lower-case kind. The idea is, religious groups have a certain expertise in helping needy people, and religion itself can be a helpful thing for those having trouble navigating this temptation-filled world of ours. And if so, why not let them stand in the same line for government contracts as Goodwill and the Red Cross? And why not let the government put its social-services dollars where it thinks they'll do the most good?

The wall was meant to keep religion — a single, dominant religious group — out of government, not to keep government from experimenting with a plan to help any religious group that's willing to play by some additional rules for helping the needy. The trouble lies in discrimination — will Bush's disbursement gatekeepers truly give equal consideration to animists' and Baptists' bids alike?

If Washington can handle that, the crucial protections of the church-state divide — the ones involving religious freedom — should remain intact. Accepting all religious groups as potentially legitimate practitioners of the helpful arts by treating them the same as secular social-services groups is a good way to keep religion from assuming some special place beside the governmental throne. (We'll get into that whole tax-free status thing some other time.)

As Bush stands atop his perch and tinkers with his plan, he's trying to assuage two fears at once: Fears of a Christian-right takeover of the government and fears of a governmental takeover of the Christian right. He may want to make the bold suggestion that the very existence of both those fears means there really isn't much for either side to worry about.