James Towey, the director of President Bush's Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, needs to get out of the house more often. He should travel the country and see for himself the incredible diversity of America's religious community.
He needs to do it soon, before he again says something as insensitive and foolish as he said on Nov. 26.
During an online chat sponsored by the White House, Towey was asked about the possibility of Pagan groups getting money under the so-called "faith-based" initiative.
Not to worry, Towey replied. "I haven't run into a pagan faith-based group yet, much less a pagan group that cares for the poor!" the transcript records him as saying. "Once you make it clear to any applicant that public money must go to public purposes and can't be used to promote ideology, the fringe groups lose interest. Helping the poor is tough work and only those with loving hearts seem drawn to it."
In three sentences, Towey managed to insult an entire religious community, lay bare his own ignorance and remind us yet again why the faith-based initiative is such a bad idea. That's quite an accomplishment.
Americans United has known for some time about the social-service work undertaken by Pagan groups. But, just in case Towey asked, we put the word out that we were looking for some specific examples. They came flooding in from all over the country.
The Pagans that Towey doubts even exist are running food pantries. They are helping poor families who can't make ends meet. They are collecting blankets and coats for the homeless. And that's just a start.
The Pagans are doing all of this without government support. It's good work, but according to Towey, it doesn't seem to count because Pagans are a "fringe" group. He says they lack "loving hearts," that they just want to "promote ideology."
So much for the Bush administration's claim that it doesn't intend to play favorites among religious groups.
The administration and its supporters have been inconsistent on this important point from the day this misguided initiative was proposed. On the one hand, initiative backers insist that effective results are all that matter and they say any religious group that can deliver is welcome. Then they turn around and assert that certain groups will be excluded from the get-go.
The fact they don't want to face is this: Whenever government gets into the business of funding religion, it inevitably starts playing favorites. Our Founding Fathers knew this. That's one reason why they opposed government funding of religion.
Here's hoping that Towey learns that lesson soon maybe right after he figures out that Pagans aren't mythical after all.