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If Pat Robertson Is Against It, Must We Be For It?

CSH’s Response to Faith- and Community-Based Initiatives  and Federal Funding

by Ed Buckner

The following article is from the Secular Humanist Bulletin, Volume 17, Number 2.

After many months of grandstanding, the Bush administration’s dangerous plan for diverting your tax dollars to churches, “Faith- and Community-Based Initiatives,”  is still not well spelled out. When all the specifics are finally in, the proposal will likely suffer more politically—but it has had mixed political acceptance even to this point. Some preachers and others have expressed great delight with the idea, including this gleeful and frightening comment: “The wall that separates church and state is crumbling—the fall is imminent . . .” (Bishop Carlton Pearson of the Azusa Interdenominational Fellowship, New York Times, April 26, 2001).

But others, including the pushy and powerful Pat Robertson, have denounced the whole thing, expressing great fear that supporting it may mean supporting non-Christian efforts, ones not born of the “true”  faith. There have been many times when it has been pretty safe to see what Robertson recommends, then just do the opposite. This does not seem to be one of those times—but what, exactly, should the Council for Secular Humanism (CSH) do about the Bush plans? (I want to thank the members of the Free Inquiry Group of Cincinnati and the Santa Barbara Secular Humanist Society for helping me think about this.)

Most of us secular humanists are ready enough to admit that there are social and community needs in this nation that are not being adequately met or even addressed. Some private, including even some religious, efforts to address these problems do seem to be effective. Many of us are, of course, liberals or social democrats who eagerly support government involvement in solving social problems. Others among us are libertarians or conservatives who believe that private efforts are all that are needed or helpful in these matters—and still others of us have decidedly mixed opinions. Nearly all of us, however, believe that the worst position of all is to have government support for religion in the name of meeting social needs.

The crucial principle of separation of church and state— the only principle that logically and historically protects religious liberty for everyone—is seriously threatened by Bush’s proposals. If government helps religious organizations, government must decide what constitutes an acceptable definition of “religious”  (does Scientology or the Nation of Islam qualify?)—and government must not have that power. If a government assists a religious organization in supposedly nonreligious work, how can the appearance of government endorsement be avoided? If a government—any government—transmits taxpayers’ money to churches or community organizations, it owes a clear duty to the taxpayers from whom the money came to monitor its spending. Government “red tape” can be inefficient, even destructive, but the alternative is the mindless giveaway of tax dollars. If a religious organization wants to discriminate against women or gay men or nonbelievers, religious liberty demands that the organization have that power; if tax dollars are used in support of such discrimination, constitutionally protected individual liberty is lost. Accountability is a necessity, but religious organizations that accept government monitoring or standards risk the loss of religious liberty for their members. Many religions, especially Christianity, require proselytizing to be a core practice for adherents. Government-supported programs cannot allow proselytizing. The inherent conflicts cannot be brushed aside without destroying liberty.

There are many more details in the argument against government support for religious initiatives and programs, and many able writers, from CSH’s our own Norm Allen, Tom Flynn, and Joe Beck, to national columnists Scott Holleran and Andy Rooney, have described the problems. But the question remains: What should CSH do about this, assuming we all agree that faith-based initiatives should not get federal or state funding? There are many possibilities:

  • Lobby hard, with editorials, op-ed pieces, letters to editors, letters to elected officials, talk-show appearances, etc., to denounce this and point out the pitfalls and threats to religious liberty and public peace.

  • Publicly, loudly, “strategically”  apply for funds from the program “to advance the cause of secular humanism” —provide, in other words, more gasoline for Pat Robertson to pour on the fire, to improve the chances that Congress and the public will more quickly realize the problems.

  • Quietly but sincerely apply for some of the funds (as a “community-based”  organization, not as a “faith-based”  one), hoping to actually receive funds that we can then use to meet serious social needs that we have identified.

  • Engage in what Reid Johnson calls “benign neglect”—stay out of it altogether, trusting that more Pat Robertsons will come out of the woodwork and help kill this bad idea (realizing that our vigorous opposition might encourage support from some quarters).

  • There are of course other possibilities, including combinations of the above, that might be tried: we have so far, for example, engaged in critical commentary now and then but mostly stayed out of it. If these programs are actually passed and survive court scrutiny, we could make a showy application for funds or quietly and realistically apply for funds, or even do both (risking being guilty of hypocrisy). There are risks no matter what we do—and we would be interested in hearing your ideas, especially if you see angles that we have not. 

Dr. Ed Buckner is the executive director of the Council for Secular Humanism.

[*] Secular Humanism Online Library

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