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 programs.

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 autonomy.

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 may also like