The Divine Economy

On January 30th, the Bush administration announced its new “Faith-Based Initiative” to allow faith-based organizations to compete with secular social services groups for federal dollars intended to help the needy. That is, as long as they don’t use the money for, well, faith-based initiatives. Bush says he wants to help churches, etc., pay for beans, not bibles.

Which raises some tricky questions. After all, how do you tell when a bean is just a bean, and when it’s God’s little messenger? And besides, what happens when religion “competes” for government dollars? Will religion rule the White House? Or is Bush offering an I.P.O. of the Lord?

Killing the Buddha asked a group of journalists, activists, and scholars what Bush’s plan will mean for God, country, and the economy of the divine.

The Perks of Post-Ideological Piety
Chris Lehmann is an editor at the Washington Post.

When George W. Bush staged his photo op / press conference announcing his new White House office devoted to “faith-based” charity and social service, one of my work colleagues pointed out that an old friend of his was among the dozen or so spiritual leaders marshaled behind the presidential podium as prospective beneficiaries. My workmate’s friend is a dedicated minister who helps oversee a Boston agency for at-risk youth. It’s certainly hard, on the face of things, to begrudge him a share of the federal money that otherwise gets earmarked for upper-middle-class tax cuts, corporate welfare or obscene defense subsidies.

But as my eye lingered on the Page 1 photo, I couldn’t help but notice that my workmate’s friend looked none too happy: He appeared to be simultaneously clenching his teeth and praying silently for strength. And my colleague quickly confirmed that his friend regarded George W. Bush as, well, something less than a spiritual witness to the suffering poor.

The dilemma spelled out plainly on this man’s face is, I confess, of more pressing interest to me than the constitutional questions of church-state separation that have swollen, predictably, into snowdrifts of punditry about the new federal Office of Faith-Based Panaceas. Try to imagine, say, the leaders of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference composing federal grant applications instead of staging sit-ins and marches and landing in jail. Think of Theodore Parker, Frances Willard, Walter Rauschenbush, Abraham Heschel, Roger Williams, or Joseph Smith as appointed state bureaucrats instead of self-styled prophets and reformers. Nor do we need merely to entertain this as a hypothetical thought-experiment: the intellectual career of protestant theologian Reinhold Niehbur pretty much went into eclipse-and lost much of its prophetic power as well-when he was retained as a de facto house preacher for the Cold War liberals of the Kennedy age.

None of this is to say that religious-minded critics of contemporary injustices, or of their likely authors in a W. administration, will be automatically silenced by virtue of being on the government payroll. But it is to suggest that some elusive, important defining trait of religion gets subtly downgraded when our leaders single out religious experience for special praise, and special treatment, on grounds of its social utility.

All major religions stake much of their moral authority on observing some version of St. Augustine’s two-cities cosmology, elevating the divine imperatives of conscience and the individual believer’s allegiance to a “higher law” over the everyday tributes exacted by earthly powers. (Insert your preferred variation of “Render unto Caesar” here.)

There’s been a steady erosion of this key, critical tension in American life over the long boom of the 1990’s. On the one hand, a market-happy culture has propelled religious thought toward mushy feelspeak homilies, and on the other, a post-ideological politics has sent all manner of commentators and political leaders clamoring for quaintly inoffensive public virtues such as bipartisanship, community and (the present real whopper from the House of Bush) “civility.” As a result, religious figures become steadily more mind-curish and/or power-mindful (cf. Deepak Chopra, Jesse Jackson, and Matthew Fox), while your everyday rock stars, athletes and celebrities grow conspicuously more, uh, spiritual (cf. Jewel, Evander Holyfield, and Oprah).

A good deal of this unsightly slipperiness between the latter-day sacred and profane comes across in the very term “faith-based” — it rings of all-purpose advertising euphemism. One can, after all, base anything on a faith, as the daily returns of the stock market and the career of Keanu Reeves both attest. Then there’s the allied notion that religion is but the most suitable instrument in hand for summoning our long-slumbering social sympathies. (It’s grimly entertaining to imagine other, starker government initiatives described as, say, “Kissinger-based” or “Archer Daniels Midland-based.”) This tacit logic does discredit both to believing souls, who have a good deal more staked on their faith, and to the hard-won provisions of our now lapsed postwar social contract, which sought to identify and rectify inequalities of condition as secular challenges to the whole society’s sense of justice, fairness and democratic promise.

The present federal mania for the faith-based now commands, fittingly enough, inertly bipartisan support. Even longtime liberal secularists tend to regard it, like the advent of the entire accidental presidency of George W. Bush, with a certain weary, if vaguely nonplused, resignation. That is scarcely surprising, since the perks of pious, this-worldly moralizing now proliferate in all corners of our political world, from sanctimoniously shocked congressional hearings on media violence, to Bill Clinton’s post-Monica prayer breakfast performance, to the smugly self-advertised religiosity of Joe Lieberman and Little Lord W. And that, come to think of it, was what seemed to be behind the stricken look on the face of that Boston minister: His presence there as a designated symbol of the social boons of private faith bore indirect witness to a wider failing of our public world, and a spreading poverty of our moral imagination.

Mother Kali Help Us
Stephen Prothero is a historian of Asian religions at Boston University, the author of Purified by Fire: A History of Cremation in America, and co-author of The Encyclopedia of American Religious History.

At the most recent Bush inaugural, the Rev. Billy Graham invoked the name of Jesus and brought down all sorts of righteous indignation. Harvard Law professor Alan Dershowitz, who now seems to have something to say about almost everything, blasted Graham for “his particularistic and parochial language.” Lost in the firestorm was the fact that religions, like languages, are always particularistic and parochial. There is no generic language, and there is no generic religion. If you want to speak, you need to pick a language. If you want to pray, you need to pick a God.

All this is to say that if you invite Billy Graham to give a prayer at a presidential inauguration, you better expect he’s going to give a Christian prayer. Graham has been around Washington enough, however, to recognize the problems inherent in invoking Jesus at a national rite. A few months before he delivered a prayer at Bill Clinton’s second inaugural (where, by the way, he also called on the name of Jesus), Graham argued that Christians like himself should share the stage at presidential inaugurals with Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist, and Islamic clerics. “Each time a President has asked me to lead the Inaugural Prayer,” Graham said in 1996, “I have argued that I should not do it alone, that leaders of other religious should be there too.”

I see nothing wrong with experimenting with federal funding for faith-based social service initiatives. There is some evidence that religious groups do a better job than secular organizations in battling alcoholism, drug abuse, and even poverty. And while getting into bed with the government may well compromise the integrity of religious communities, it seems to me that they should be the guardians of their own purity. Given the sorry state of secular social services, the time is right to experiment with faith-based initiatives, which at least under the current Supreme Court will probably pass constitutional muster (as long as the religious groups involved avoid sectarian proselytizing).

My big question is whether Bush’s faith-based programs will look like America, or like Bush’s inauguration. Will Jesus be the only God invoked? Or will Krishna, Allah, and the Buddha also be paid to demonstrate their considerable compassion?

Until fairly recently, the claim that America was a Christian or Judeo-Christian nation made some sense. Since immigration was opened up in 1965, however, the religious landscape has been radically transformed. There are now roughly 1500 Buddhist centers in the United States, and Islam is by most accounts the fastest-growing religion. We are now, as Supreme Court William Douglas observed in 1965, “a nation of Buddhists, Confcianists, and Taoists, as well as Christians.”

To his credit, President Bush has repeatedly referred to “churches, synagogues, and mosques” as potential sites of faith-based initiatives, indicating that his understanding of legitimate religion presses beyond the Judeo-Christian tradition to include Islam. But the true test of this policy, in my view, will be how broadly it is applied. Will Vietnamese Buddhist groups have a legitimate chance of receiving federal funds to assist impoverished refugees? Will Hindu organizations be able to compete on a level playing field with Black churches for anti-drug funds?

I doubt that will be the case. But if it is, I will be happy to pray not only to Jesus but also to Mother Kali for the success of Bush’s initiative.

Untouched by Angels
Donna Minkowitz is the author of Ferocious Romance: What the Right Taught Me about Sex, God, and Fury which won a Lambda Award for best book on religion and spirituality. Her sermon “Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy and Cruel” was recently performed in the Poets and Preachers series at The Kitchen in New York City.

The worst thing about Bush’s plan is it puts even one more nail in the coffin of the idea that government is supposed to take care of the poor. I can’t stand this received wisdom that governments and societies in general fail when they try to fight poverty, and that the only people able to do this are individuals or cute little charity groups.

It’s this disgusting “Touched by an Angel” notion that people can only be helped when they realize they’re bad. That material transformations in people’s lives depend solely on spiritual transformations, with “spiritual” defined in conservative Christian terms as the realization of sin and individual responsibility.

Under this logic, it’s not worthwhile to make economic changes to benefit the poor-or finance drug treatment programs, or build government-financed battered women’s shelters. Or make public schools better, or make jails places that rehabilitate people. Instead, just give ’em the 12 Steps and the warm shoulder of Jesus!

The other thing I hate about Bush’s plan is the idea that religious people are better than others. Better at helping people, better at giving charity, just morally better in general. This is obviously false. Mother Teresa refused to give terminally-ill people painkillers because she thought that by suffering they would imitate Jesus. Church-run programs for homeless teenagers are rife with homophobia and sexual abuse. Then there are my personal favorite points of light, the Taliban.

Clearly, there’s no connection between loving God and being moral. Which makes sense, because the one thing I know most profoundly about God is that God is not particularly moral himself.

Thank God for Tipped Passes!
Vine Deloria, Jr., is a historian at the University of Colorado at Boulder, an Indian activist, and the author of many books, including Custer Died For Your Sins, and God is Red.

It is indeed ironic that Bush wants to include religious organizations in the annual distribution of taxpayers’ money. If we look back at the origin of Western institutions closely, we can see that churches were the original providers of schools, welfare, health care, and even penitentiaries. Over the last few centuries these institutions have all become secular because the churches abandoned their responsibilities and were able to transfer the responsibility to the state.

Today even the former church-related-colleges scramble for federal funds. So we have come full circle now, and the church, instead of leading the state in matters of human concern, or being separate but equal partners in social issues, will become the handmaiden of the secular state in a formal relationship.

Considering the track record of religious institutions in the past, choosing them to participate in what have become secular social programs is absurd. Christianity has always been the subject of wide pendulum swings between two biblical verses:

“Go forth and preach to all nations!!!”
“Let your light so shine before men that they can see your good works and glorify your Father which is in heaven.”

Unfortunately, it is a lot easier to preach at people than to do good works. Modern Christianity, with some rare exceptions, has embraced the god of the Old Testament rather than the god of the New Testament, so the present posture is one of blaming the victim rather than helping the victim. Good Samaritans are a rare commodity today. Since the only timewe actually hear about god in secular life is interviews with winning professional athletes, thanking god for tipped passes, funding religious groups to do anything is simply hastening the complete collapse of whatever is left of American culture-and perhaps even American history.

With John Ashcroft as attorney general, writing the opinions on which religious groups are eligible for federal funding, is there any doubt that this plan represents the complete takeover of the national government by the religious right? Whatever they do thereafter can be explained by Jimmy Swaggart — “I sinned and I’m sorry” — so let me go and sin again. We face a disaster of unimagined proportions and intensity if Bush’s plan comes into operation.

Let the Poor Choose Their Own Religion
Polly Trout is a religious historian and author of Eastern Seeds, Western Soil: Three Gurus in America.

Let’s not get in such a self-righteous liberal huff about the church-state thing that we sit around dissing people who are actually out helping the desperately poor while we talk about how to help them. Instead, let’s examine more closely the possible reasons why faith-based social services work, since they seem to.

One possibility is that when a person in trouble goes to a small, community-based operation run by individuals who are willing and able to share their own strategies for coping with tragedy, then the needy person is more likely to experience real human contact than if they apply to a large bureaucratic agency staffed by people who are not allowed to have actual conversations with their supplicants about anything that matters. What matters to a lot of people is religion. Or, to put it another way, “religion” is what we call our attempts, as human beings, tofigure out what matters and how to live a meaningful, dignified life. For many people in traumatic circumstances, these are issues that must be addressed before healing can be accomplished, and talking to others about these issues is an invaluable aid-especially if the helpers are highly motivated to treat the wounded person as a human being worthy of love and respect. Whether or not a needy person can get this sort of help at an average church is unclear to me, but they sure as hell aren’t going to find it at DSS.

Also implicit in the debate is the assumption that the clients of social programs-the homeless, the addicted, the poor — are passive rubes who need to be protected from the brainwashing attacks of evangelicals. An effective intervention program must start with the assumption that every individual is the competent, rational navigator of his or her own life. If the faith-based program is a voluntary option among an array of other choices, both secular and from other faith perspectives, its presencewould help affirm the personhood of the client, who could then choose the program he or she wanted rather than having the state decide by offering a smaller number of choices.

Give Bush the Creepy Crawlies
Starhawk is a Witch, an activist, and author of The Spiral Dance: A Rebirth of The Ancient Religion Of The Great Goddess, recently republished in a 20th anniversary edition by HarperSanFrancisco.

Bush’s plan dovetails with a larger right wing agenda: essentially, to remove government from any social responsibility. I’m writing from Brazil, where I’m attending the World Social Forum, a counterforum to the World Economic Forum being held in Davos, Switzerland. A lot of the discussion revolved around the upcoming attempt to extend NAFTA through the wholehemisphere via a trade agreement known as the Free Trade Area of the Americas. Among other things, the FTAA would open the door to the privatization of services, such as health care, education, prisons, etc. It would allow your friendly local corporationto sue your government, say, for lost potential profits if a pesky government insisted on subsidizing its own schools, or running its own utilities.

So I see Bush’s proposal in this context-a step in the attempt to shift all responsibility for compassion in the system to private religious groups. Then we’ll eventually be left in a world where government simply administers for corporate interests, and the church is left to staunch the worst of the wounds. The wounded will have no real say in any of the decisions that affect them.

I happen to believe that those canny framers of our Constitution separated church and state for good reasons — not least because they had direct experience of living under a system much like I’ve described. So as far as Bush’s proposal goes, I’m agin’ it. I think it’s extremely dangerous.

As for strategy, the quickest way to defeat it is for the most respectable organs of the most respectable religions to just say no. Ditto to the World Council of Churches and the larger ecumenical and interfaith groups. “We’ll stick with the Constitution, thank you.”

And then we Pagans, Witches, and all the other groups that probably give Bush the creepy crawlies could step forward and say, “Well, if you’re going to do this, we want a seat at the table. We want our share of funding. We want to be part of the process. After all, whether you think we’re a religion or not, we’re acknowledged as such by a Higher Authority — the IRS, actually — and we want to play, too.”

Could get interesting!