Congress has convened, President Bush is promoting his budget and, once again, religious liberty is in peril.
The Bush administration has proposed a plan that would channel public funds to building projects for religious organizations that engage in social work. It would allow government financing of construction or renovation of so-called “dual-use” buildings. The sections of the buildings to be used for religious purposes could not be financed with public money. But the parts of the building that would be used for non-religious social work could be funded publicly.
The administration’s 2004 federal budget likewise comingles church and state. It would fund at least two voucher programs that could be used to purchase social services from religious organizations. One would provide $756 million to buy vouchers that would enable children in the District of Columbia to attend private and parochial schools. Another would ante up $600 million to fund treatment programs, including those operated by religious organizations, for up to 300,000 drug addicts and alcoholics.
In addition, Congress likewise is setting its sites on action that would breach the “wall of separation” between church and state. Proposed legislation runs the gamut from voucher plans for religious schools to bills that would allow churches to endorse political candidates.
The judiciary also may get in on the act, although by administrative proposal and congressional approval. The president will be looking to fill numerous vacancies in federal courts. And with an aging Supreme Court, he also may have an opportunity to nominate at least a couple of justices.
Anyone who has observed American culture in recent years can understand the president’s inclination and lawmakers’ desire to go along with him. In many places, religious institutions are succeeding where secular organizations have failed. The success rates of many faith-based drug- and alcohol-abuse programs have surpassed those that do not involve a faith dimension. Numerous schools in inner-city neighborhoods are failing to educate their students, while nearby private and parochial schools are passing. What person of goodwill cannot appreciate the unique strength religious faith brings to healing society’s ills?
President Bush understands this. In a not-so-subtle choice of words, the president said, “There is power, wonder-working power, in the goodness and idealism and faith of the American people.” Millions of evangelical Christians instinctively recognized the first words of that line as the beginning of the chorus of “Power in the Blood,” a hymn that exalts Jesus’ ability to redeem sinners.
But George W. Bush is not the pastor of the United States. And we are a country of diverse peoples, not a church of like-minded believers. The intentions of the president and Congress may be honorable, but a union of church and state in our country would not serve the state and could kill the church.
The Founding Fathers who framed the Bill of Rights carefully delineated separation between church and state. History has demonstrated their brilliance. Although our country has its share of problems, its vibrancy of faith far exceeds all other developed countries. For illustrations of atrophied faith, look to Western European countries where taxes buttress the church; worship attendance is almost nil, secularism triumphs. More tragically, look to nations where the government identifies with one religion; religious persecution runs rampant and the blood of martyrs runs in the street.
Ironically, people who consistently back government support for religion and faith-based organizations are among those who tend to desire smaller and less-intrusive government. They, of all people, should know that what government supports it soon regulates and eventually controls. They deceive themselves if they think government will hand out billions of dollars to faith-based organizations and not demand anything in return. And they lie to themselves if they believe religious organizations will remain vibrant when they grow dependent upon the government dole.
Yes, let the administration and lawmakers support faith-based initiatives. Let the president use his “bully pulpit” to urge Americans of all faiths and no faith to give generously to faith-based and social-service agencies. Let Congress provide generous tax incentives for doing so. But keep the state from meddling with the church.
Marv Knox is editor of the Baptist Standard. Used by permission.
Coordinator of Fellowship Southwest, an intentionally ecumenical, multicultural, multiracial Cooperative Baptist Fellowship network, and a member of Good Faith Media’s strategic advisory board for news and opinion.