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BILL FRIED

Good faith and bad faith

THE RECENT White House Faith-Based and Community Initiatives conference in Boston felt familiar to one who had attended Housing and Urban Development bidders' conferences: booths and brochures about new federal programs for the inner city, self-serving speeches by figureheads, and a politician's display of "annoyance" with a dogged community activist.

But much was unfamiliar: I didn't remember a HUD development meeting having an opening prayer, and we were blessed by the presence not just of the mayor but the governor's wife and the president (by video). The speeches glorified religious faith; one scoffed at Jefferson's "so-called" wall between church and state; and many criticized "secular humanists."

Still, it was seductive and reassuring. Federal funds could not be used to proselytize, and agencies could not discriminate against clients of different faiths, i.e., force a client to attend a religious service to get help. The faith-based initiative merely sought a level playing field, we were told. By literally every speaker. In just those words.

For a time I felt myself swept along the undertow of a gentle revival meeting until we came to the inevitable horror story. Conferences typically feature an underprivileged family or individual; here the victim was organized religion. We were repeatedly told of the intense hostility toward religion perpetrated by secular humanists.

This snapped me out of my acquiescence and reminded me that the wall between church and state need not be based on hostility toward religion but on a recognition of its uniqueness. Religions confront the deepest mysteries of life with all-encompassing belief systems and well-defined membership. To hold that nonbelievers cannot be members is a typical and legitimate religious position.

I suddenly remembered the host's repeated insistence was that we didn't have to join in the opening prayer. She protested too much. In fact, it was the emotional magnetic north of the meeting. Turf was being marked, insiders and outsiders were being defined. Did my decision to refill my coffee during the prayer mark me as a secular humanist? Praise Jesus.

And in terms of agency funding, this playing field will soon tilt. Witness the sudden interest in social service provision by these prominent conservatives, many of whom made pointed reference to the black churches who benefit from such funding. The faith-based initiative has spread to seven federal Cabinet departments, and experts were provided to spoon-feed religious organizations the correct ways to apply for funding and avoid the legal traps set for them by secular humanists. Us and them, writ large.

Behind the fig leaf of nominal nondiscrimination, tax dollars will trickle and then flood into organizations whose very nature is exclusionary and whose criteria of success may have less to do with need and more to do with creed. Given insufficient funds to help two destitute families, one Jewish, one Christian, with the money being distributed by an Orthodox Jewish agency, whom do you think will be the chosen family? Praise Yahweh.

And yet, so continual were the reassurances, so modest the plea for a level playing field, that I had to remind myself of my own discomfort. What, then, is the mechanism of this quiet, seductive coup? I find three false equivalents that echo conservative political strategy over time.

The first is the emotional equation of a despised, disempowered minority with organized religion. Certainly this audience can relate to oppression, but to equate it with the resource-rich institutions of religion is a masterful ideological step. Recall Nixon's portrait of the most powerful nation in the world as a "pitiful, helpless giant."

The second is intellectual. Here speakers equated the textured religion/state compromise hammered out over centuries with their bone-skinny rationalizations for erasing even that short arm's length relation. "The Constitution mentions the Creator!" crowed one speaker, making what he took to be a definitive case against Jefferson's wall of separation. How little nourishment is required by the ideologically pure.

The third is theological. Not being religious -- or not flaunting one's religiosity -- is equated with a particular religion called secular humanism. Secular humanism is then defined as the antireligion and thus vilified for being intolerant. Recall Bush's "If you're not with us, you're against us."

And so it goes: insidious, reassuring, and politically clever. Nixon attacked service agencies, Reagan cut them, and Bush throws a paranoid prayer shawl over them. All in a slick, reassuring package of tolerance, innocence, and good intentions. So where will that leave the grant-seeking community group?

Praise Allah and pass the grant proposal.

Bill Fried is executive director of the Lakeview Manor Tenant Association in Weymouth.  

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