The Bush Church-State Legacy

Why Congress Should Reject The Latest ‘Faith-Based’ Fiasco

When the historians of the future assess the presidency of George W. Bush, they are likely to focus on the war in Iraq, the horrific attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and the ongoing struggle with terrorism.

Those are vitally important issues, of course. But those issues, and Bush’s reaction to them, tell only part of the story of his presidency. Quietly, without as much fanfare, Bush has been building another legacy. For the past seven years, he has been working to dismantle the wall of separation between church and state.

Bush, hovering at around 30 percent approval, refuses to see himself as a lame duck. In his January State of the Union address, he launched two more salvos at the church-state wall, urging Congress to make his “faith-based” initiative permanent and to pass a $300 million national school voucher scheme.

At this time next year, the country will be done with Bush – but he seems eager to leave many of his worst ideas behind. The faith-based initiative is a perfect example. For starters, that name is a euphemism. What Bush really wants is taxpayer-supported religion. In a country where people annually donate billions to religion voluntarily, his approach never made much sense.

Bush became convinced that religious groups – especially his fundamentalist Christian friends – should run an array of social services with public funds. He blithely ignored the problems this presents. He sent contradictory messages. Bush would assert that tax funds should not be used to proselytize – and then praise a program that includes proselytism.

Bush turned his back on our nation’s policy of not subsidizing employment discrimination, a principle that was hard fought during the Civil Rights era. Bush wanted to trash it so that “faith-based” groups could take money from all taxpayers and still hire only members of their own faith.

The real tragedy of the faith-based initiative is that it didn’t have to be this way. Some religious charities had been receiving tax funds for some time. On behalf of the government, they ran secular social services that were open to all. No one was pressured to pray, convert or embrace a particular faith. Religious groups understood that with public funds, they had to hire the best qualified person, not the one who attended the “right” church.

Bush scrapped all of that and sparked a seven-year battle over a series of questions that most people assumed were long settled. Now Bush wants Congress to make this train wreck a permanent fixture of the political scene? Please. The first thing our new president should do next year is wipe the Bush faith-based approach off the books and start over from scratch. Begin anew with the simple proposition that if we must have this type of funding, the program should respect, not violate, our Constitution.

Bush’s religious school voucher subsidy is similarly misguided. When people are asked to vote on vouchers, they send a strong message: We reject them. Americans want a well-funded, strong system of public education. They are not interested in throwing tax funds at religious schools that serve a private sectarian interest.

Last year, Utah voters resoundingly rejected vouchers 62 percent to 38 percent. This margin came in a state that is often described as the most conservative in the nation. We’ve seen similar results in many states over the years. The people are trying to say something here. Perhaps it’s time Bush began to listen.

But then, listening has never been Bush’s strong suit. He’s very skilled at pushing ahead with a bad idea in the face of common sense and public opinion. In BushWorld, facts are indeed inconvenient things.

But whether Bush will acknowledge it or not, things have changed. Most Americans have given up on his presidency, and Congress is in the hands of the opposition party. In short, Bush can float all of the bad ideas he wants. There is no reason for anyone to act on them.

Presidential legacies are tricky. Our past leaders are constantly being reevaluated in the light of new evidence. But certain things remain constant: You can count on Abraham Lincoln being near the top of the list and Warren G. Harding dwelling at the bottom.

Our guess is that future historians will not look kindly on the Bush years. Much of their analysis may center on an unpopular war, a steady erosion of civil liberties under the guise of fighting terror and a lethargic response in the wake of an unprecedented natural disaster.

Some will probe deeper and see Bush’s assault on church-state separation as another strike against him. At a time when the United States was more religiously diverse than ever, at a time when we fought forces abroad that seek to enforce religious orthodoxy at the point of a gun, Bush sought to undermine the constitutional barrier that makes our religious freedom possible.

Bush will be out of office in 10 months. Congress should spend that time in part making sure he does no more damage to the church-state wall. Ignoring his misguided demands for a permanent faith-based initiative and national school voucher plan is a good place to start.