Religious experts discuss soundness of President Bush’s faith-based initiatives

Tuesday, April 10, 2001

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Religious scholars and experts discussed the role of religion in American life in light of President Bush’s initiatives to allow government funding of faith-based social programs April 6 at the First Amendment Center.

Jean Bethke Elshtain, social and political ethics professor at the University of Chicago Divinity School; Marci A. Hamilton, Yeshiva University director of the Intellectual Property Law Program; Gustav Niebuhr, New York Times religion reporter; and Lucius Turner Outlaw Jr., Vanderbilt University director of African-American studies, spoke on the panel.

Niebuhr said vice presidential candidate Joseph Lieberman’s comments last fall about religion’s being an important part of public life reflected Americans’ increasing interest in and willingness to discuss religion and religious values.

Lieberman’s belief that “religious values make one a more moral person” reflects a “spiritual searching and a subconscious awareness of religious diversity,” Niebuhr said. He added that Lieberman enhanced the discussion of religion by inducing people to talk about more than “just simply Protestants, Catholics and Jews.”

Hamilton said she found Lieberman’s statements both encouraging and troubling.

“The most troubling part was his statement that ‘we’re all under one God,’” she said. “If that’s the kind of rhetoric that you’re going to put forward, it’s almost certain that Hindus and Buddhists will have problems with it.”

“We’re not seeing a real embracing of pluralism but rather an increasing political power of mainstream religions,” Hamilton said.

One significant problem with Bush’s faith-based initiatives is how to decide which religious groups will receive money for social programs, said Elshtain.

“How you sort that out will be complicated,” she said. “What counts as a legitimate religious institution?”

But the president’s “initiative has engendered a healthy debate about religion, politics and the role of faith-based institutions in society,” she added.

African-American churches welcome the opportunity for government funding of their social programs, Outlaw said, because throughout history religious-based help programs have been a cornerstone in African-American communities.

“African-Americans have been funding their own (social programs) for centuries, so they say, If you want to make public funds available to use — fine.”

But Hamilton cautioned: “We need to stop and think carefully about whether or not we want church and state to be financial partners.

“Do we want the churches to spend their time lobbying Congress because they want their pay earlier in the year, or because they want a bigger chunk?” Hamilton asked.

She said the churches in Germany are in crisis because the government handles tithing, collecting taxes from the people who designate which church they want to receive the money.

“If the U.S. populace is as good as it’s reported to be on giving to private organizations, does the intervention of the government make that less likely?” Hamilton said.

The panelists also debated the state of religious pluralism in the U.S.

Outlaw said America was founded on the “premise of white supremacy, but pluralism has fractured this in ways we can’t put together again.” Other religious believers such as Muslims and Hindus will have to be seen as equally important in society as Jews and Christians for Bush’s proposal to work, Outlaw said.

But Hamilton said the idea of pluralism is included in the First Amendment. “James Madison said unless there were sects that keep their individual identities, we won’t have liberty,” said Hamilton.

Madison believed that there would be more liberty with a variety of beliefs than there would be with a single set of beliefs, she said. “I think diversity is built into the establishment clause.”

Hamilton said the establishment clause means that “we will only have true diversity when the government stands aside to let that diversity flourish.” The challenge of Bush’s faith-based initiative is to allow religious groups to maintain their diversity while giving them funds from the government, said Hamilton. “If the government gives money to (religious groups) will the money go to all kinds of churches?”

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