President George W. Bush has repeatedly said he wants to be "a uniter, not a divider." Yet his "faith-based" initiative seems to be having the opposite effect.
Bush's plan has just been introduced in Congress, but already a number of religious leaders are at each other's throats over the wisdom of the proposal.
The recent exchange between the Rev. Eugene Rivers, an African-American pastor in Boston who supports the Bush plan, and Dr. Richard Land, an official of the Southern Baptist Convention, who has reservations about it, is instructive.
Reacting to concerns raised by TV preacher Pat Robertson and others on the Religious Right, Rivers told The Boston Globe, "The white fundamentalists thought the faith-based office would finance their sectarian programs, which primarily serve upper middle-class suburbanites, and they are infuriated because [White House official] John DiIulio wants resources to go to people who are poor, black and brown."
An angry Land retorted, "It is inaccurate, inflammatory, and irresponsible of Rev. Rivers to attack the motives of those expressing concerns based on the fundamental value of religious freedom. Like Johnnie Cochran with a clerical collar, Rev. Rivers plays the race card." Land concluded that "bigots come in all stripes and all colors and all professions."
Land later said he has no interest in public funding and wouldn't touch it "with a ten-foot pole."
To that, Bush initiative backer Robert Woodson fired back, "Many of the religious leaders who say they wouldn't touch government money with a 10-foot pole probably wouldn't touch some of the people who need these services with a 10-foot pole either."
These rhetorical duels follow on the heels of earlier wrangling in which Robertson said Hare Krishnas, the Rev. Sun Myung Moon's Unification Church and the Church of Scientology should not get aid because they are "aberrant" groups that have been accused of brainwashing. His fellow religious broadcaster Jerry Falwell took a similar exclusionary tack, saying "Islam should be out the door before they knock." Meanwhile, The New York Times reports that the Anti-Defamation League has asked the White House not to fund Minister Louis Farrakhan's Nation of Islam.
The American people also seem torn by the Bush initiative. A new poll from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life shows that many Americans don't have a problem with tax funds going to religious groups as long as those groups aren't minority faiths they are uncomfortable with.
The survey showed that most people don't mind public dollars going to religious groups that are well known the Roman Catholic Church, Jewish groups and the various mainline Protestant churches. But support dropped rapidly when less familiar religious groups were put into the mix. Nearly half of all Americans would deny funding to the Mormons. Large majorities don't want it to go to Buddhists or Muslims.
Thus the Bush plan has sparked name-calling and exposed racial and religious divisions and it's not even law yet. We ought to look at these developments as bright red warning flags and react appropriately.
President Bush should drop his "faith-based" initiative and reaffirm the separation of church and state.