President Bush And The 'Faith-Based' Minefield

March 2001

Church & State Viewpoint

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President Bush And The \'Faith-Based\' Minefield

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by Tom Ehrich

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I see three dangers in President George W. Bush\'s new "White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives."

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The first is that Bush misreads the terrain.

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He just did the deed. Without submitting his concept to public scrutiny and legislative oversight, he hired the managers, dreamed up a suitably awkward name and started selling the package.

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It reminds me of the newly hired pastor who sweeps into a new job, rearranges the chancel, changes the liturgy, surrounds himself with people who have been craving such changes, and is astonished by the ensuing firestorm.

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Not even earnest words and a podium teeming with religious diversity can mask the disturbing reality: a lifetime of Texas Methodism hasn\'t prepared our new president for the minefield onto which he ventures.

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Read the numbers, Mr. President. The United States has some 300 Christian denominations, a slew of deeply divided Jewish traditions, a growing but divided Muslim constituency, plus hundreds of faith expressions that can\'t be labeled, not to mention countless splinter groups within these groupings.

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After nearly four centuries of loathing each other, the religious in America are more divided than ever. The government won\'t be taking sides, you say. But are you prepared to referee the unending cat fight that is religion in America?

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Yes, faithful people do a great deal of public good. The homeless shelters, day-care centers, prison ministries, youth retreats and rape-counseling services of America would be lost without them. But they usually happen in spite of religious officialdom. While religious hierarchies snarl over stale issues like sex, people of good will simply go about doing good.

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Does the president think tossing money into the fray will do anything other than give the combative something else to fight over? And if he tries to go around religious hierarchies to deal directly with those serving the soup, watch out. Not even his learned professor could untangle that mess.

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The second danger is that the government won\'t be able to avoid taking sides.

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Even if Bush\'s agenda truly isn\'t a sop to the right-wing Christians who voted for him, the inescapable reality is that religious agendas are profoundly at odds. Not just lacking money, not just unschooled in the art of obtaining government grants, but at odds, working at cross purposes, unable to tolerate opposing views.

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Does this administration have the intellectual agility to allow one "faith-based initiative" to provide abortion counseling to rape victims and another to shout down that response as evil? Can an AIDS-prevention ministry that provides safe-sex counseling to homosexuals coexist on an official stage with equally fervent believers who believe such caregiving violates the very will of God? What if compassionate witches wanted to start a day-care center?

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The third danger lies in religion\'s longstanding desire to join the establishment, perhaps to rule it.

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Pastors and prelates want to be consulted on matters of public policy. They want to be players. They are highly educated men and women. Some would make excellent corporate leaders. They chafe at being lectured by bankers at vestry meetings. Saying grace before football games isn\'t enough.

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Religious leaders, however, are best kept off the official stage. One needs a capacity for self doubt and compromise in order to govern a diverse society. Possessing a fervent conviction in one\'s rectitude adds little good to public policymaking. The official stage needs to be carefully protected against pious rages. There is no one who will take away human freedom faster than a true believer who gets the upper hand. Witness the Taliban who govern in Afghanistan.

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I believe faith needs to be protected, too. Faith needs to remain on the margins. Theocracy has never worked. The Word of God is always contrarian, calling people to repent and to let go, to turn away from the lures of wealth and power, to embrace the outcast and despised.

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To be effective, faith needs the freedom to disagree, to name the evils, to step away from the crowd and onto a boat, as Jesus once did, to take unpopular views, and to encourage values that are fundamentally at odds with community norms.

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It will serve faith poorly if the religious find common but tepid ground in the pursuit of money.

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Tom Ehrich is an Episcopal priest who lives in Durham, N.C. He wrote this essay for Religion News Service.