Unholy Alliance

"Faith-based activism" is very much in vogue, and some church-run programs may be effective at alleviating urban ills. But funding these programs with government money raises troubling constitutional issues. Is there a reasonable middle ground?

See "Can the Churches Save the Cities? Faith-Based Services and the Constitution," by Isaac Kramnick and R. Laurence Moore.

It is easier to believe that God is in heaven and all's right
with the world than it is to imagine an irreverent politician
questioning whether there is a God in heaven or any benefit
to prayer. Even political theorists and commentators, right and
left, are apt to shrink from criticizing religious belief or religious
communities. Etiquette demands respect for piety and the presumed
virtues of faith, and most people believe in God anyway.

So it is hardly surprising that religion is being touted as the
antidote to crime, drug use, and teenage pregnancy, although proof
of religion's particular utility in treating or preventing social
ills is quite equivocal. The religiously oriented Alcoholics Anonymous,
generally considered the most successful treatment program for
alcohol addiction, cannot count its failures. How do you track
its anonymous and always changing membership? And religious leaders
who run successful neighborhood programs, delivering faith-based
services, cannot measure how much of their success depends upon
religious proselytizing and how much it reflects their active
and devoted membership in the communities they are trying to save.
Belief in God is commonly presumed to inculcate virtue in us,
although I don't think anyone has ever demonstrated that religious
people commit fewer crimes—or sins—than atheists. And nothing—other
than conventional wisdom—says you have to be religious to minister
effectively to people's needs.

But if religious forays into social welfare don't necessarily
"heal" us, conservatives may hope that they wean us
from dependence on government programs. Faith-based social service
programs, vouchers directing public funds to parochial schools,
and legislation assigning public school teachers to parochial
schools to conduct classes in basic subjects like reading and
math are giant steps toward privatization. ("Why not close
down the public schools and leave schooling to as many qualified
groups as wish to undertake the challenge and provide good quality
education?" Bishop William F. Murphy asked not long ago in
the Boston Globe.)

Religious institutions, after all, don't generally seek partnerships
with the state, which would hold them accountable to bureaucrats;
they seek access to state funds and control over policy. Their
proposed takeover of welfare programs, drug treatment programs,
and schools will lend justification to the government's abandonment
of social services and redistribute public funds to private sectarian
institutions. It's no coincidence that support for these programs
has flourished at a time of widespread disdain for the federal
government, a time when the President acts more like the Mayor
of the United States—or the Preacher of it.

Still, it's unlikely that all religions will benefit equally from
the disbursement of government funds. When Wall Street Journal
editorial writers exalt faith-based social services, they're not
suggesting that we teach troubled teenagers channeling or encourage
them to don saffron robes and chant. They're advocating government
support of only a few established religious institutions: churches,
synagogues, and maybe mosques—or maybe not. Former Senator Bob
Dole, for example, endorsed a welfare bill effectively requiring
states to use churches as welfare providers, exempting the churches
from federal employment discrimination laws and expressly allowing
them to dispense federal aid in sectarian environments—but he
also excoriated the Clinton administration for hiring the Nation
of Islam to police public housing projects. As Jeffrey Rosen noted
in the New Republic, Dole expressed concern about the Nation
of Islam's discriminatory hiring practices and the likelihood
of federal funds being used to support religious proselytizing.

Subscribe to The American Prospect

Senator Dole's momentary conversion to separationism when confronted
with federal support for a radical, minority religion he disdained
revealed the majoritarian impulses behind campaigns for faith-based
social services and other church-state alliances. Although right-wing
Christians have begun presenting themselves as a beleaguered minority
in competitions for government support, their demands for state-sanctioned
religious practices are often demands for majority rule—reflected
in familiar attacks on the Supreme Court's occasional defense
of minority rights.

In the Weekly Standard, for example, Dennis Teti, the research
director for the Tricentennial Foundation for America, argued
that Congress should pass legislation allowing the states to post
the Ten Commandments on government property, effectively overturning
a 1980 Supreme Court decision keeping the Ten Commandments out
of public schools. There is "a consensus across religious
faiths that the Commandments should be publicly respected as the
foundation for our constitutional principles," Teti declared,
overlooking the constitutional principles that shield individual
religious preferences from popular "consensus." And
even beliefs that are shared "across religious faiths"
may be anathema for nonbelievers. Religious freedom is not simply
the freedom to worship as you choose; it includes as well the
freedom not to worship—a freedom that should surely extend to
welfare recipients and patients in federally funded drug treatment

The context for faith-based social services is a campaign to align
public policies with majoritarian religious practices and ideals.
Consider the outcry against Romer v. Evans, the 1996 Supreme
Court decision that struck down Colorado's Amendment 2, which
prohibited the state from protecting homosexuals from discrimination.
Like the Court's school prayer decisions, Romer was condemned
for overruling a majority vote denying equal rights to homosexuals,
whose behavior many considered sinful. (It also fueled demands
for a Christian revolt against our godless regime.) But what critics
of the Supreme Court's "arrogance" in thwarting the
majority fail to recognize is that the Bill of Rights is intended
to protect minorities, even—or especially—when majority rule derives
from religious belief. Thirty years ago, when the Civil Rights
Act was passed prohibiting race discrimination in public accommodations,
many people probably harbored religious beliefs about the sinfulness
of integration. For some, white supremacy was divinely ordained.
A hundred years ago, many believed that male supremacy was a divine
right and obligation—a belief the Promise Keepers organization
is apparently fighting to revitalize today.

But current demands for religiosity in government cannot simply
be attributed to the religious right. Left-of-center communitarians
share much of the credit (or blame) for prevailing critiques of
secularism and celebrations of majority rule. Communitarians have
lauded religious institutions as paradigms of community and sources
of civic virtue; they have associated assertions of individual
rights with selfishness and anomie; they have given majoritarianism
new respectability by calling it a renewal of community. Of course,
liberalism has also long stood for restraining the market behavior
of individuals to promote a greater social good, but it has fought
government attempts to control private behavior. Communitarianism
extended the liberal critique of individualism in the economic
sphere to the sphere of personal relations and civil liberties.
It romanticized religious belief and the spiritual power of communities,
injecting the left with hostility to existential demands for individual

In this climate, appeals to Jeffersonian ideals of separating
church and state and reminders of the threat to minority rights
posed by state-established religions will do little to counter
anecdotes about recovering addicts who find God or born-again
welfare recipients who find the will to work, as well as jobs.
But if the principles restraining majoritarianism fail us, sectarian
rivalries may restrain the formation of majorities, as the Founders
anticipated. ("Security for religious rights," Madison
wrote in Federalist No. 52, depends on "the multiplicity
of sects.")

Will right-wing Christians fight to give Muslims the power to
conduct prayers in public schools or administer government funds?
Will Muslims and Orthodox Jews join Southern Baptists in a fight
to post the Ten Commandments in the nation's courts? Historically,
religious minorities in America have supported the separation
of church and state, recognizing in it a grant of religious freedom.
But if they begin to feel more threatened by secularism than by
a theocracy in which a majority rules (with the promise of benevolence),
then First Amendment strictures against establishing religion
may fall. If sectarianism doesn't emerge early to prevent church-state
alliances, it will emerge with a vengeance, too late.

You need to be logged in to comment.
(If there's one thing we know about comment trolls, it's that they're lazy)