President George W. Bush recently announced that he is for separation of church and state in Iraq. The new Iraqi government, he told an NBC interviewer a few weeks ago, will not be a theocracy.
It's too bad we can't say the same thing for the United States. Here at home, Bush continues to dismantle the church-state wall, brick by brick.
His latest assault was very clever: Federal grants for "historic" houses of worship. Bush dispatched Interior Secretary Gale Norton to Boston to announce that the first grant would go to Old North Church, whose steeple housed the famous lanterns that signaled Paul Revere in 1775 that British troops were on the move.
The trouble is, Old North Church is not a museum. It's an active Episcopal congregation with services every Sunday. It's true that the church's windows are in bad shape. Any other church in America would have to raise money from its congregation to buy new ones. You and the rest of the American taxpayers are paying for Old North Church's new windows.
James Towey, President Bush's point man on the "faith-based" initiative, has already ticked off a list of other houses of worship that might get tax funding: Touro Synagogue in Newport, R.I., the first synagogue in America; a Baptist church in Birmingham, Ala.; an ornate Roman Catholic cathedral in Baltimore.
You have to hand it to the spin doctors of the Bush administration: They are experts at dressing up the constitutional damage they do and pasting a smiley face on the most regressive measures. Everybody loves the story of Revere's daring midnight ride. Everyone knows Old North Church is a national treasure. Why shouldn't the church get a little help from the taxpayers?
For the same reason that the Episcopal church down the street from you that was built in 1979 doesn't get tax aid: Houses of worship must be built, maintained and renovated with private dollars. Any other system is forced taxpayer support for religion, nothing less. The fact that a church is old and beloved doesn't mitigate that.
The sad thing is, the grant to Old North Church was completely unnecessary. The amount involved is not large only $317,000. Even a moderately competent fund-raising professional could have raised twice that amount in an afternoon without breaking a sweat. Had they been asked, hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of Americans would have gladly chipped in a few dollars just to say they had a hand in renovating this national icon. Instead, Old North Church has allowed itself to be used as the poster child for the Bush administration's latest attack on the First Amendment. There's also a disturbing partisan angle: Time and again, this administration has used the faith-based initiative to try to lure African Americans, Jews and Roman Catholics into the Republican Party. The latest bribe to these groups is the promise of tax funding for their "historic" houses of worship.
What's especially discouraging is that some of these religious leaders must know better. Touro Synagogue is famous for a letter it received in 1790 from George Washington. In that letter, Washington assured Jews in America that they had nothing to fear. The new government, with its policy of separation of church and state, would respect the religious freedomof the Jews. Jews would not merely be tolerated in America; they would have full citizenship privileges guaranteed by the Constitution. The leaders of Touro Synagogue are rightly proud of that famous letter. But for some reason, they have chosen to ignore the principles outlined in it by passing the bill for Touro's renovation to the taxpayer.
This issue may seem trivial to some. Church-state separationists are sometimes accused of carrying principle to the extreme. That is not the case here. If the federal government can start doling out cash grants to houses of worship merely because they are "historic" (read: old), then we are no better than the nations of Europe, where grand cathedrals are kept open by the government dole.
Ironically, religion will suffer in the long run. The voluntary impulse has kept religion vital in America. People support houses of worship whether they were built 250 years ago or last week because they have a stake in what goes on there and believe in the spiritual mission those buildings represent. Believers gladly donate millions to faith communities every year because they know nobody else is going to pay the bills.
Why bother, if there is a government grant around the corner? Why dig deeper to fix the windows or add a new coat of paint? Why care at all? If you play ball with the powers that be, some government agency will come through sooner or later.
That's the attitude that emptied Europe's cathedrals and turned them into de facto museum pieces. That's the attitude that made them wards of the state.
The irony is rich. The Bush administration stands ready to preserve "historic" church buildings, but it wants to tear down our "historic" wall of separation between religion and government.
We must vow to sound the alarm again. Like modern-day Paul Reveres, we must rise up and spread the word: A new "King George" is trying to impose the tyranny of state-sponsored religion on America. For the sake of religious liberty, he must not succeed.