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Questions Of Faith
Posted: Wednesday, February 12, 2003

For Reporters Covering Bush's Faith-Based Initiative

by Russ Baker,

Perhaps it was appropriate that President Bush chose Nashville's Opryland on February 10 to deliver his sermon on why taxpayer money ought to be given to religious groups. A cultural shrine to musical laments about unfaithfulness only underlines the president's breaking of faith -- with the Jeffersonian creed separating church from state.

Bush's benign-sounding new executive order banning "discrimination" against faith-based charities in the distribution of federal social service grants and building monies will surely play well in the first round of opinion polls -- especially among members of his right-wing religious constituency, the footsoldiers of the GOP.

But are mainstream journalists prepared to ask the tough questions that will expose the dangers inherent in this politically motivated initiative -- even at the risk of offending powerful leaders of organized religion? For those with the requisite courage, here are some suggestions:

In his speech Monday, Bush declared that "[G]overnments can and should support effective social services provided by religious people, so long as they work and as long as those services go to anyone in need, regardless of their faith."

Mr. President, how WOULD they work? Who would police them? And what's your definition of religious groups? I'm assuming you don't want to make selections, so I guess you're good with taxpayer money being used by the Raelians and L. Ron Hubbard's Church of Scientology, the Hare Krishna, and so on?

Bush pressed on: "And when government gives that support, it is equally important that faith-based institutions should not be forced to change the character or compromise their prophetic role."

Mr. President, are you saying that taxpayer money should go to programs that -- because of the sponsoring religion's beliefs -- discriminate against gays, women, ethnic groups, other religions in hiring? (The Salvation Army won't hire gays, for example.)

Bush: "I think the charities helping the needy, it should not matter if there is a rabbi on the board, or a cross on the wall, or crescent on the wall, or religious commitment in the charter."

Mr. President, how about what they teach? I'm guessing you would not want the public's money being handed to a madrassa that implicitly encourages terrorism, as many of these Muslim schools do in Pakistan, for example. Whom do you have in mind to make these judgment calls?

Bush continued: "It's been said that 11:00 a.m. on Sunday is the most segregated hour in America."

Mr. President, history shows that antebellum preachers in the South supported slavery until the very end. You yourself, while praising a few local efforts, acknowledge that America's churches today lag behind businesses and the military in erasing racial barriers. The Roman Catholic Church in the United States is in disarray over allegations of endemic child abuse. What objective evidence leads you to think that religious groups, despite their rhetoric of compassion, are particularly suited to improving the nation's moral fabric?

Bush spoke further: "We created faith-based offices in key Cabinet departments to ensure that faith-based groups get equal treatment and fair access to government funds."

Mr. President, are you saying that taxpayer funds are financing lobbying operations established within the agencies they are seeking to influence?

And Mr. President: What is all this going to cost taxpayers? What effect will it have on reducing funding to highly-skilled, effective, secular social services agencies? And, finally, exactly how will this improve social services, rather than just benefiting religious groups? Did you know that the Salvation Army already gets around $1.5 billion a year in donations? How much do you intend to add to that?

Oh, and one more thing: Can you explain, in your own words, the concept of separation of church and state? Are you for eliminating that?

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