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Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Religion in Government

Like him or hate him, Bruce Bartlett says what he thinks:

God and Government, by Bruce Bartlett: When future historians try to explain the presidency of George W. Bush, his religious fundamentalism unquestionably will be a central focus. It has made him certain about the correctness of his policies, especially the Iraq invasion...

Few writers feel comfortable discussing this aspect of Bush... Implicitly, we are ... led to accept that we cannot judge others on the basis of their religious beliefs, no matter how crazy they may be...

As someone who is not at all religious, it is particularly hard for me to interpret or even comprehend those with deep religious beliefs... I have no frame of reference upon which to base an analysis that makes any sense to me.

Consequently, I am grateful when those who are religious raise the same questions I have in my mind about what motivates Bush and how his religion influences his policies. One who has done so is the well-known writer, editor and blogger Andrew Sullivan...

Basically, Sullivan's book is a brief against fundamentalism. As fallible human beings, we simply cannot know all the things that fundamentalists are absolutely certain about, he argues. Furthermore, although fundamentalists don't explicitly reject reason, in practice they do, making rational debate impossible. How can you argue with someone who believes that he knows absolute truth because it has been given to him directly by God through prayer or a sacred text? The answer, of course, is that you cannot.

As long as our religious beliefs are private and only affect our personal behavior, this is generally not a problem. ... But when we get into ... areas of public policy, there are necessarily going to be conflicts. ...

Obviously, there is a middle ground to which the vast majority of Americans have always belonged. They believe in tolerance for those with different religions or none at all, and see nothing wrong with token governmental support for religion in a general sort of way, such as allowing children to pray in school. But most importantly, government in this country historically has been constitutionally limited... [T]rue conservatives should just as strongly oppose Bush's religiously based expansions of government as they would those promoted by liberals. ...

On the strict separation of church and state:

Religion on Welfare, by Brooke Allen, Commentary, LA Times: Religious organizations throughout the country are accorded countless exemptions from taxes and federal regulations. ... The practice of regulatory exemptions and tax breaks for churches and religious groups gained momentum under President Clinton and has greatly accelerated under President Bush, who has tried through his faith-based initiative to create new legal precedents for such advantages and to make religious groups eligible for numerous state and federal grants and contracts.

Supporters of the Bush initiative have vigorously denied that its programs contradict the principles of church/state separation laid out in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. Former Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) has said that society "treats Christianity like a second-rate superstition," and House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) insists that "radical courts have attempted to gut our religious freedom and redefine the value system on which America was built."

The people who really did build this nation most definitely did not define "religious freedom" as the right of churches or other religious groups to benefit from taxpayer dollars. In fact, James Madison, the thinker who probably contributed more than any other to the legal foundations of our nation and who is frequently referred to as the father of the Constitution, was unambiguous on the subject.

First of all, he thought the idea of ... any church ... acquiring property and wealth to be directly contradictory to the principles of the Constitution. ... In 1811, President Madison vetoed two bills, one incorporating an Episcopal church in the District of Columbia, the other reserving government land in the Mississippi territory for a Baptist church. ... Here we have Madison's clear opinion that "the appropriation of funds of the United States" — taxpayer dollars, to put it in today's parlance — to pay "for the use and support of religious societies" goes against constitutional principles.

Further, in a direct swipe at what people today would call faith-based initiatives, Madison stated his objection even to governmental sanction and support of a church's charitable activities. "Because the Bill vests in the said incorporated Church," he said, "an authority to provide for the support of the poor, and the education of poor children of the same; an authority, which being altogether superfluous if the provision is to be the result of pious charity, would be a precident [sic] for giving to religious Societies as such, a legal agency in carrying into effect a public and civil duty."

He did not approve, in other words, of churches and religious societies being given a "legal agency" (including taxpayer funds) to carry into effect "a public and civil duty." The public weal is the responsibility of the government itself, funded through taxation. Any charitable work churches might undertake is "pious charity," and as such a voluntary act on the part of church members.

Supporters of the faith-based initiative point out, with justice, the many wonderful charitable programs religious groups have provided, and some of them accuse separationists of waging a war against religion. This distorts the argument severely.

Separationists are not attacking religion. They are merely reminding us that religion and church membership, under our Constitution, are defined as voluntary — the general population cannot be compelled to underwrite any particular church. That is what freedom of religion means.

    Posted by on Tuesday, October 17, 2006 at 12:09 AM in Economics, Politics, Religion | Permalink  TrackBack (1)  Comments (12)


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