Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Faith-Based Foolishness

Churches never have enough money—and since I’m a preacher, I should know. That’s what makes Faith-Based Initiatives so tempting.

Wouldn’t it be nice to have the government subsidize our congregation’s good works in the community? Or dip into the public purse to repair the steeple on our historic building?

But having tax-dollars pay for church-sponsored programs is a devil’s bargain, whether the “initiative” is coming from neo-conservatives or Barak Obama.

Glen Ford, writing in the Black Agenda Report, took Obama to task this week for reviving George Bushes’ electoral game plan. According to Ford, “Bush garnered record-breaking numbers of Black votes in states like Ohio in 2004, based on mobilizations of Black ministers tied to faith-based Republican money.” Essentially, he used federal dollars to buy votes at the polls.

It’s no surprise, because where money is concerned, there are always strings attached. When churches become dependent on government hand-outs, can they still serve their prophetic role? Criticize the king—like the Hebrew prophet Nathan criticized King David—and your funding might get cut.

Isn’t there already enough religious tension between Protestants, Catholics, Muslims and Jews in this country? They already compete for converts, for visibility, for numbers. Inviting them to compete for tax dollars just inflames the sectarian turf wars.

That’s why our Founders were careful to separate church and state. Madison and Jefferson, for example, regarded the elimination of Virginia’s official Anglican establishment as among their proudest and most important achievements. Some, like Washington, straddled on the issue—but history has now had time to render judgment.

If we’ve managed to avoid the worst kinds of religiously inspired mayhem that’s wracked other countries—from faith-based militias to faith-based political parties—we can thank those scrupulous about keeping government and organized religion at arm’s length.

They say politics makes strange bedfellows. And when you see Barak Obama cozying up to George W. Bush, you know it’s like the mating dance of church and state—not a marriage made in heaven, but in more infernal regions.

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