Pulpit Bully: Bush Administration Moves to
Undermine Separation of Church and State
by Susan Jacoby
September 30, 2003
The White House has taken what may be its boldest step yet to blur the constitutional separation of church and state.
In a radical move largely ignored by national news outlets, the Bush administration has abolished longstanding prohibitions against federal grants for social programs sponsored by churches and religious organizations.
"Faith-based" groups are now eligible to compete with secular organizations for some $28 billion in government money, subsidizing everything from housing to "mentoring" the children of prisoners.
The new rules, announced Sept. 22 at a White House press conference, give bureaucratic teeth to an executive order issued last year that banned so-called discrimination against religious institutions applying for government grants.
The administration has long argued that religious-based organizations can provide needed social services, especially when numerous federal programs are not being fully funded. But there's another, more disturbing facet to this debate that the recipients of these dollars don't want to acknowledge: Federal funding will greatly enhance their evangelizing and conversion activities.
The conversion agenda can be seen in the fine- and not-so-fine print in the new White House rules.
The most controversial change allows religiously affiliated federal contractors to discriminate against job applicants of other faiths. Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao disingenuously insisted that the new rule simply "removes the barrier" preventing religious organizations from hiring members of their own faith.
But there never was a barrier preventing Catholic charities from hiring Catholics or Jewish charities from hiring Jews. What the government did do -- in the days when political leaders respected the First Amendment -- was tell federal contractors, "If you want public money, you can't refuse to hire someone simply because he doesn't share your religion."
The policy shift was denounced by the American Civil Liberties Union as "the most sweeping affirmation of tax-funded religion and religious discrimination since the President took office." Yet this change was downplayed by the news media as a routine bureaucratic matter.
The New York Times buried the story on page A-10, without an index listing. The Washington Post relegated the news to its "capital page," generally reserved for civil service minutia. Only National Public Radio -- a favorite villain of the Christian right -- gave the story the attention it deserved.
The administration has good reason to cloak its intentions in bureaucratic language, because there is strong evidence that the public disapproves of using tax money to set up a religious version of a union shop.
The respected Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life found in a nationwide poll that while Americans generally support funding for faith-based social services, 80 percent would deny tax money to religious charities that discriminate against job applicants of other faiths. The poll was conducted in 2001 and there is no reason to believe that Americans have changed their minds.
Discrimination in hiring is the most visible issue, but the administration's rules attack the barrier between church and state on many fronts.
Job training vouchers, for example, will now be available to men and women pursuing "faith-based careers." In other words, the Labor Department is free to subsidize the training of priests, nuns, ministers, rabbis and imams.
And the Department of Housing and Urban Development is authorizing an additional $30 million for faith-based programs, supported by its Compassion Capital Fund. Projects funded during the past three years by the "compassion fund" demonstrate what can now be expected on a larger scale.
The administration is particularly determined to channel more money into faith-based drug rehabilitation centers, though there has never been any scientifically based research indicating that rehab programs are any more effective than those run by secular medical institutions. But it is an article of faith to the religious right that faith is the best medicine for drug addicts. It is here that the conversion agenda can be most plainly seen.
In July, Bush's drug czar John P. Walters made a point of appearing in Riverside, Calif. at a "Teen Challenge" facility that hires only evangelical Christians and regards indoctrination in fundamentalist Christianity as therapy for drug abuse.
Testifying before Congress three years ago, a Teen Challenge official offended Jewish leaders by observing that some Jewish teenagers who go through the program convert to Christianity, thereby becoming "completed Jews."
In another project supported by the compassion fund (and run by the born-again Christian and convicted Watergate felon Charles Colson), Iowa prisoners gain access to television, computers and private bathrooms if they participate in Bible study and "Christian counseling."
Americans United for Separation of Church and State has sued to halt the prison program on First Amendment grounds and many more lawsuits will likely be filed by civil liberties groups as such programs proliferate.
But court decisions will be handed down too late for the sometimes literally captive participants in faith-based social programs. Prisoners, children of prisoners, the homeless and recovering drug addicts are hardly in a position to "just say no" to a mandatory dose of the fundamentalist Christian gospel in return for the earthly help they need so badly.
Does the White House know it is undermining the constitutional separation of church and state? Of course, it does. This White House is nothing but loyal to its ideological base. The majority of Americans, who believe in a separation of religion and politics, are just a heathen horde.
Susan Jacoby is author of Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism, to be published in April 2004 by Metropolitan Books. This article first appeared in Tom Paine.com (www.tompaine.com)