Allies in the Battle over the "Faith-Based Initiative"
Lorie Johnson printable version print page     Bookmark and Share
Fri Mar 24, 2006 at 10:47:26 AM EST
Is the utilization of religious organizations- often those with a very powerful evangelical and proselytizing  mission- a 'bad way to do good'? Many secular people believe so. But, surprisingly, many devoutly religious people also believe this is true, and are banding together to preserve what they see as genuine religious liberty. Who are these allies, and what are they saying?
I'm an incorrigible link-follower, because every 'rabbit hole' I follow seems to lead to some place of great- and often surprising and gratifying interest and insight. For a long time, I thought that Baptists were monolithic in their staunch fundamentalism. I've been re-educated in this matter since I've deepened my research of the myriad of Protestant and Christian sects, and have found that not all Baptists are as intent on steamrolling the Constitution and Bill of Rights as I originally thought.

Take, for instance, the Baptists of the Baptist Joint Committee. They appear to be composed of what Bill Moyers called 'primitive' Baptists- those whose ancestors were instrumental in keeping church and state far apart. Here's what Moyers  says about the BJC Baptists:

James Dunn and Bill Leonard are Baptists. What kind of Baptist matters. [Emphasis mine] At last count there were more than two dozen varieties of Baptists in America. Bill Clinton is a Baptist. So is Pat Robertson. Jesse Jackson is a Baptist. So is Jesse Helms. Al Gore is a Baptist. So is Jerry Falwell. [And let's not forget Jimmy Carter! - ed] No wonder Baptists have been compared to jalapeno peppers: one or two make for a tasty dish, but a whole bunch together will bring tears to your eyes.

Many Baptists are fundamentalists; they believe in the absolute inerrancy of the Bible and the divine right of preachers to tell you what it means. They also believe in the separation of church and state only if they cannot control both. The only way to cooperate with fundamentalists, it has been said, is to obey them.  James Dunn and Bill Leonard are not that kind of Baptist. They trace their spiritual heritage to forbearers who were considered heretics for standing up to ecclesiastical and state power on matters of conscience. One of them was Thomas Helwys, who, when Roman Catholics were being persecuted by the British crown, dared to defend the Catholics. Helwys went to jail, and died there, for telling the king of England, King James - yes, of the King James Bible - that "Our Lord the King has no more power over their [Catholic] conscience than ours, and that is none at all."

Baptists helped to turn that conviction into America's great contribution to political science and practical politics - the independence of church and state. Baptists in colonial America flocked to Washington's army to fight in the Revolutionary War because they wanted to be free from sanctioned religion. When the war was won they refused to support a new Constitution unless it contained a Bill of Rights that guaranteed freedom of religion and freedom from religion. No religion was to become the official religion; you couldn't be taxed to pay for my exercise of faith. This was heresy because, while many of the first settlers in America had fled Europe to escape religious persecution at the hands of the majority, once here they made their faith the established religion that denied freedom to others. Early Baptists considered this to be tyranny. Said John Leland: "All people ought to be at liberty to serve God in a way that each can best reconcile to their own consciences."

Wow. So, if you find these Old School Baptists, and ask them what they think about all this Faith-Based funding of religious entities, you're going to get a negative response from them. They don't like this at all.

The folks at the BJC make their distaste and alarm at this trend very clear:

Our concerns focus on threats to religious liberty and to the integrity of religious institutions. Information about the actual distribution of funding is hard to come by. What we know is that the administration is aggressively promoting the initiative through revised regulations and public relations efforts. When crucial questions are raised, they cast critics as extreme secularists. Meanwhile, a legislative impasse on Capitol Hill reveals just how far off-course the initiative has veered.

Think about what they're saying, and what they're seeing: With the government moving in on religious organizations and funding them, that means that the government has a say in what the ROs are doing. And this corrodes the integrity of those religious organizations, making them beholden to the whims of the government, and even, in time, steering them 'off mission'.

But the BJC and their allies aren't just watching and worrying. They're doing something about this- standing up and resisting the collision of church and state that their brave (and wise) ancestors fought so hard to prevent:

Is America A Christian Nation?

"The notion of a Christian commonwealth should be exploded forever."

The speaker? Some modern secular humanist? No. It was John Leland, a hell-fire preaching colonial Baptist from Virginia, who spoke these words. What's more, Leland was echoing the sentiments of Baptist Roger Williams, who, 150 years earlier, had told us that civil authority has no "commission from Christ Jesus" to declare what is the true church.

Both Leland and Williams understood that God has favored no nation since ancient Israel with a special covenant. The "new Israel" is the church of Jesus Christ, not any nation- not even the United States.

No one denies that Americans are a religious people or that Christianity influenced the civic values and public philosophy of many of our Founders. But our civil compact- the Constitution- is a decidedly secular document. It never mentions Christianity. The word "religious" is there only once- and then to disallow a religious test for public office. The Bill of Rights again dispelled any lingering suggestion that America is a Christian nation when it prevented the federal government from establishing religion.

Source  (This is a PDF file- you'll need Adobe to read it.)

There are many other allies in this opposition to the "Faith Based Initiative" and similar violations of the Establishment Clause. Democracy in Action has an open letter to the President in which all clergy are invited to sign that details their concern:

An Open Letter to President Bush and Members of Congress from America's Clergy

As leaders from traditions representing the diversity and breadth of our nation's religious landscape, we affirm the critical role of faith as a source of healing in our society. Whether commanded by sacred text or inspired by the words of spiritual leaders, our faith communities have a long history of providing services to those who are in need.

It is specifically because of our commitment to sustaining such services that we write to express our concerns about current efforts to undermine the appropriate relationship between government and houses of worship.

Proposals to funnel government dollars directly into houses of worship and religious organizations, namely President Bush's Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, endanger both the sanctity of religion and the integrity of government. By accepting government funds, houses of worship would be subject to government oversight, as well as invasive government regulation, including compliance reviews, audits, and perhaps even the subordination of religious principle to government policies and objectives. Such practices would inevitably undermine the independence and integrity of religious organizations. We oppose any policy that would entangle religion and government in this unprecedented and perilous way.

For decades, houses of worship have set up separately incorporated institutions to fulfill their prophetic missions. These relationships have prospered due to safeguards in current law that ensure the rights of service providers and the well-being of beneficiaries. Altering the process by which faith-based service providers currently operate will jeopardize the unique and carefully balanced relationship between government and faith-based providers. These changes will create problems -- not solve them.

There is more to this letter, but the salient points are made, and very clearly, in the opening paragraphs.
Many organizations- both religious and secular- have signed this letter.

They see religious discrimination as a huge threat and integral to the corrosion of the Establishment Clause.

Our allies in this battle are the key to turning around the ship of state, and sending it back towards a balanced means of governance. Corroding the secular government's abilities to care for our needs in favor of religious entities is not the way to govern. It invites the introduction of a stealth theocracy, which is what our Founders strived against creating when they wrote the Constitution and Bill of Rights. We must preserve what they have done, or risk losing our country.

It isn't just religious organizations that are allied in this battle, but social workers, as well. Check out their letter to Congress.

As social service professionals, we understand and appreciate the significant contributions by religious institutions in providing important government services to those in need. Current efforts to restructure the way these services are funded and regulated by the federal government pose serious threats to this historical partnership between government and religious organizations. Although we recognize the importance of religious organizations in assisting those in need, we are deeply concerned about the possibility of government-funded organizations proselytizing to people seeking aid and discriminating against qualified employees on the basis of religion in government-funded jobs.

More at the site.

by Lorie Johnson on Fri Mar 24, 2006 at 03:31:03 PM EST

Thanks for pointing out the important work of the Baptist Joint Committee, a long-time DC stalwart for religious liberty and church-state separation. The BJC believes that a proper distance between the 2 is good for religion

The new blog of the BJC, Blog from the Capital, is a good way to keep up with important daily elements of, and perspective on, our first freedoms (if I do say so myself...shameless self-promotion..)

by DonByrd on Wed Mar 29, 2006 at 07:08:19 PM EST

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