I've been getting many calls lately about my allegedly new "strange bedfellows." Friends and reporters ask, "How does it feel to be on the same side of an issue as Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell?"
They've heard that those Religious Right icons and I have problems with President George W. Bush's "faith-based initiative." That much is true, but the fixes offered by the reverends of the right are often worse than the original proposal. My solution has the benefit of simplicity: dump the plan entirely. And there we part.
Falwell and I have done a number of television programs about this lately. Falwell's ministry is so closely associated with the GOP that he's careful not to actually admit that Bush's idea is lousy. He does, however, make a few interesting points along the way.
Falwell seems to believe that any group can be eligible for funds, except for ones that preach "hate." He is not just talking about the Aryan Nations here. In an interview on the website beliefnet.com, Falwell actually managed to defame a major world religion by asserting, "I think the Moslem faith teaches hate."
Later, on MSNBC's "Hardball" program with Chris Matthews, he clarified that by noting that only "some Moslems" teach hate. Well, guess what? Other people's religions often appear to outsiders to be seriously deficient. If you are a Unitarian, a progressive Catholic or a Presbyterian, you might find Falwell's comments about gay people or Robertson's view that Hindus are "devil worshippers" to be rather narrow-minded and bigoted, maybe even "hateful." Americans have the right to categorize other people and groups any way they want. The federal government, however, cannot rank groups based on "rudeness" and then decide that some are so bad they are ineligible for funding.
Falwell also says that there should be "absolutely no strings attached" to any money to faith groups. After I pointed out to Wolf Blitzer on CNN's "Late Edition" that churches ought to be at least as accountable as Defense Department contractors for how they spend government funds, Falwell conceded, "There will have to be some financial accountability." And in that concession we see the door pushed open to government oversight of religion.
Falwell's fellow TV preacher Robertson has a different idea: replace outright federal grants to religious groups with a dollar-for-dollar tax credit (not merely a tax deduction) for contributions to certain charities on a government-approved list or, failing that, creation of a kind of "social voucher" for beneficiaries.
The latter approach seems to be getting some traction. John J. DiIulio, who heads the "faith-based" effort for Bush, told a meeting of the National Association of Evangelicals recently that an "indivisibly conversion-centered program that cannot separate out and privately fund its inherently religious activity" would be eligible for funding through "individual vouchers."
But in reality neither "solution" works. The former simply sounds too much like something out of 1984. (An official list of approved-by-the-government religions? No thanks!) The latter is merely a backdoor approach for funding religion with tax money.
Every federal court that has heard a religious school voucher case has ruled that vouchers are inherently unconstitutional. Why wouldn't vouchers for churches be equally suspect? These courts know that funding pervasively sectarian institutions promotes religion and that money is fungible.
If a government dollar pays for bread in a church-run hunger project, that is one more dollar available for direct proselytizing or increasing the pastor's salary. (Indeed, the Bush administration recently used a variation of this argument to try to justify cutting all funds to American groups that do family planning overseas if the group did any abortion counseling even with privately raised funds.)
From the beginning of this controversy I have been arguing that one problem for faith-based groups is that their own contributors may feel less inclined to give if they know that Uncle Sam is also in the pew with his check headed for the collection plate. It seems that it is even worse. The Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), which has generally applauded President Bush's "armies of compassion," has now decided to cut back on its own social ministries. According to the Baptist Standard, the SBC's North American Mission Board has sliced five positions, including one for work with immigrants and several in literacy training, moving the funds into such enterprises as "Internet evangelism."
Meanwhile, worthy government programs are already falling under the "faith-based" axe. Bush's budget slashes half of the $300 million spent on security at public housing projects. One political appointee told the Associated Press that much of the cutbacks would be made up by "faith-based initiatives." Does this mean prayer groups will pray that drug dealers move to other locations? Or will we hire ministers who are also National Rifle Association members (you know you're out there) to patrol the premises?
So, I must honestly report that I am not at all a bedfellow of Falwell or Robertson. At most, they have inadvertently blundered into the same hotel where I've been residing for some time, and at least for a while we're all on the non-smoking floor.
Barry W. Lynn is executive director of Americans United
for Separation of Church and State.