The framers of our founding documents could not possibly have envisioned the radical religious pluralism that characterizes this nation today. Yet in the First Amendment to the Constitution, they provided us with two clauses, which offer a means of interfaith cooperation, of respect between religious people and non-religious people, that are absolutely essential to the health and welfare of our nation. To say that everyone can practice his or her religion freely up to the point that that free exercise compromises someone else's freedom is a contribution to the vitality of religion in this nation.
The second clause in the religious liberty provisions of the First Amendment guarantees that the government is not going to establish one official religion among all of the religions that inhabit the nation. But it also guarantees that the government's not going to attempt to get involved in the life of religion, institutionally speaking, and that religion is not going to try and unduly get involved in the institutional work of government.
That means that all religions in this nation exist on a level playing field. They can do their rituals, they can sound their prophetic voices, they can advocate for their values that complement the common good in a way that's beneficial to everybody, without fear of undue governmental response to them in a negative way.
Can you talk about the president's faith-based initiative, and what issues it raises with respect to the Constitution?
Stripped from all excess language, the faith-based initiative would have houses of worship -- pervasively sectarian institutions in this nation -- become the recipients of federal funds and the employees of the federal government to do social services. That is a violation of the establishment of religion clause [in the Constitution].
Can you explain how that is a violation?
The faith-based initiative, in my opinion, is problematic constitutionally, politically and religiously. From the standpoint of the Constitution, it presents problems related to the institutional separation of religion and government. The faith-based initiative effectively makes houses of worship and pervasively sectarian institutions employees of the federal government. That's how they get their money.
Federal funds flow into those organizations that say, "We're going to do this work of drug rehabilitation, social service, whatever, as emissaries, as representatives, as institutions of the federal government." That's the way the federal government sees it, as well.
[But] any agency or institution that accepts federal funding thereby commits itself to the civil rights guarantees that govern our whole society. That means, very simply put, that if you want government money, you live with government regulations, and one of those regulations is that you cannot discriminate in your hiring practices.
Religious institutions wanting federal funds jeopardize the integrity of their freedom and identity as religious institutions, because with those federal tax dollars come federal regulations -- regulations like civil rights regulations that this society has generally applauded; regulations that have advanced public morality in our nation.
Why can't I get federal money and then discriminate in my hiring practices? Because the federal government wants to be sure that civil rights is a part of public morality in this land, and one way that is enforced is through the economy. Where the money goes, civil rights guarantees go.
So a religious institution needs to weigh whether or not it's going to accept federal funds on the basis of that. Why can't religious organizations hire whomever they please, using doctrinal conformity and ecclesiastical polity and all of that as criteria in hiring? They can -- if they retain their identity as pervasively religious institutions. But if they want to be conduits of federal funds, if they want to be a part-employee of the federal government, then they have to live with the same regulations and civil rights that everyone else lives with.
What about the argument that these organizations may provide better social services than those that were provided by the government?
I think the faith-based initiative is based on some very questionable -- I would even say false -- assumptions. The major false assumption is that religious organizations do a better job in the delivery of social services than do their secular counterparts. That generalization bears all the flaws of any generalization. It's partly right, and it's partly wrong.
Some religious organizations do a better job in social service delivery. Other times, secular organizations do a better job in the delivery of social services. …
The president has said that this money is not to go to proselytizing, but is specifically to go towards running a soup kitchen or providing drug treatment services…
The president has paid lip service to the fact that federal funds should not be used in proselytizing, in overt establishment of religion-type activities. But if the goal of the faith-based initiative is to use faith as a transformative power in people's lives, then what is said is not matched by what is done. That's one issue.
The second issue is that there is almost the anticipation, if not expectation, that federal funds will go to pay for physical, logistical, staffing kinds of concerns. But amid the programs that result from all of that, evangelists, proselytizers who are not on those funds, who are not bound to those particular logistics, can move among the people involved, and they can proselytize all they want.
Most cynically stated, it's the old "wink" method which characterizes so much of what goes on in Washington. That is, "We can't fund your evangelism related to faith. However, we can buy the computers; you distribute the Bibles. We can pay for the building; you can do whatever you want to in that building."
Those who defend the faith-based initiative say that this is really an issue of discrimination, in terms of religious organizations who traditionally were not allowed to apply for federal funds, and that this is opening up the playing field to allow those who were previously denied.
Historically, religious organizations in this nation have never wanted a level playing field. Houses of worship have not wanted to be recipients of federal tax dollars, because they saw at stake in that kind of influx of public money a compromise of their basic religious integrity and identity.
I don't think you can say it too often -- that where federal money goes, federal regulations follow. It may come immediately, it may take a longer time, but the regulations are coming. There are no illustrations that show that principle is untrue in our history.
So a house of worship that wants to do its ministry in the name of God, in the name of Allah, in the name of a particular Buddhist tradition, ought to have the privilege of doing that without anybody looking over their shoulder, without any regulation saying, "That can't be done."
The only way to guarantee that freedom is to maintain identity as a religious place of worship, a house of worship, a pervasively religious organization. Some of the problems that disturb me most about the faith-based initiative go far beyond the constitutional worries, and have to do with the integrity of religious organizations and with security for religious pluralism and cooperation in this land.
On the integrity matter, a house of worship is able to be in the business of transforming lives because it does prize at the center of what it's about the influence of faith, the power of faith. That can't be changed. And you still have the effectiveness of a house of worship. So if you have the president saying you can't do proselytizing, you can't use faith with federal money, then you've trumped not only the integrity of the religious organization, you've robbed it of that which is most effective and makes it most desirable as a delivery system for social services. So the faith-based initiative is a threat to the religious identity and integrity of the houses of worship and pervasively sectarian organizations that receive federal funds.
Second, the faith-based initiative threatens to compromise religion's greatest contribution to this nation. Historically, the role of houses of worship have been in yes, caring for the poorest of the poor, delivering social services with compassion to people in need, and also relating those needs to social and governmental policies in a manner that I would categorize as the prophetic voice of religion.
Religion consistently has been a prophetic voice, calling this nation to fulfill the dream that started this nation -- to see that every person in this nation is a beneficiary of our abundance, of our justice.
Now you're sitting in your office as a religious leader, and in order to strengthen the ministries of your house of worship in a local community, you want federal money. You sit there and think, "There is a challenge that I need to sound about an injustice in this community and about a policy in this nation that I think is wrong. But if I challenge that, I may jeopardize receiving funds from government agencies." So it is so important that I feed this person who is hungry, that I silence my rhetoric about injustice to get the money to buy bread to feed the hungry person.
Religious agencies in this nation should never have to even contemplate that dilemma. A part of the calling of a religious organization -- a part of its identity -- is to be a prophetic presence, and a prophetic voice calling us to our highest selves. We can't jeopardize that for some money to do social services without compromising one of the greatest gifts that religion has made to this nation.
A third problem I see from the religion point of view with the faith-based initiative [is] I think ultimately the faith-based initiative will blunt the sharp edge of volunteerism and charitable giving, both of which benefit houses of worship in an inestimable manner.
If we come to the point that the public, that has been so generous in funding compassionate ministries through religious organizations, begins to look to the government to do the funding that they have been doing, then we have lost something, not only of the spirit of charitable giving. We've lost something that is valuable to the whole moral milieu of our nation, because of people's personal involvement in charitable giving and compassionate ministries.
So in an effort to give more money to social services done by religious organizations, I think this program could actually result in less money flowing into religious social service agencies.
Is this because the people who normally are charitable are saying to themselves, "They're receiving federal money, so why should I give my money…?"
Recently, President Bush said to a group of religious leaders, "I am throwing open the federal treasury. I want to give you money out of this. There is a lot of money here. I want you to have all that you need, all that you can take of this to do your work.
Now here is a person who's trying to make a decision related to charitable giving in his or her own life, and that person hears the president with this open federal treasury. That person decides, "They don't need my money. They're going to get funded better than many other organizations out of the federal treasury, so I will do something else with my charitable gift."
I think it's a matter of saying, "If the federal government is going to take care of this, I don't have to." I'm suggesting, not only is there an economic loss there, there is a spiritual/moral loss there, because of people backing away from personal involvement in the very kinds of services that make them better and improve the spiritual welfare of our nation.
Is there a wave of applications by faith-based organizations to look for federal money, and are they thinking about these issues that you're presenting?
A few weeks ago, President Bush opened his political campaign, which started in California. One of his stops on that California trip was to speak to a faith-based initiative conference. I wouldn't, by the way, lose the significance of the proximity between opening a political campaign and speaking to a faith-based initiative conference. There is some politicization here that's disturbing.
However, in his speech in Los Angeles, the president practically pleaded with those present to ask for federal funds. He said to them, "I realize there's some reticence in you coming to the federal government and receiving our funds. I understand that reticence, but I'm encouraging you, please, take this money."
That suggests to me that there is a perception among religious leaders that this may not be all that it's cracked up to be. That, one, there may not be as much money there as it sounds like there is. Second, that if I take this money, there is going to come with it some expectations. There may be some regulations that I don't want. I may be freer to do my work as a minister, as a rabbi, as a lay religious leader I may be able to do my work better without that money than with it. So, no, I don't think there is a mad rush to accept federal funding for religious social services.
The other dimension of that is that many people in religious social service agencies realize that there is not an infinite pot of gold here. We're really talking about a small amount of money to do the kind of work that they want to do. Tied with that is the realization that they may have to make some decisions about their rights in employment, in whom they can serve, in what kind of message that they can give through their social service programs because of having received that money. And the money's not worth it.
So there's a constitutional problem with the faith-based initiative. There is a problem related to the integrity and identity of religious organizations at stake here. Thirdly, I think there is a political concern here.
At the start of your response to my question you mentioned the word "politicization." What do you mean by that?
It is not without significance that the president opens the political campaign season in Los Angeles, talking for 45 minutes about faith-based initiative. We have seen, over the last three years, a politicization of religion unlike any phenomenon we have seen in this nation's history.
We have also seen the religiofication of politics -- that is, using religion to advance political agendas -- even to the point of suggesting that your patriotism is in question and your religious commitment is in question if you don't embrace certain social/political agendas.
It is not without significance that some of the grants made available by the faith-based initiative office in the White House have come in districts where there were heated political campaigns.
Now this is not unrelated to the integrity of religion issue, because if the government begins to make decisions about grants of public tax dollars to religious organizations based on a political agenda, there is inevitably a divisiveness that results in the religious community. Why did that house of worship get money, and we don't? …
The church I pastor is in Monroe, Louisiana. Where are the votes in Monroe, Louisiana? They're in the evangelical Christian community and they're in the Catholic community. So you are a small, fledgling congregation of Muslims, but you're doing really fantastic social services. With the politicized agenda for the faith-based initiative, how likely is it that that small congregation of Muslims or the small congregation of Ba'hais will receive federal dollars?
[Are you suggesting] there is both a subtle and an overt political agenda involved in this faith-based initiative?
You know, we at the Interfaith Alliance have been following the emergence of the faith-based initiatives since it was first mentioned in 1999 on the campaign trail, with then-Governor Bush talking about compassionate conservatism, with then-Vice President Gore talking about charitable choice.
Since that time, Governor Bush -- now President Bush -- has had the bully pulpit of the presidency to advance this cause. He has had the luxury of his party being in control of both houses of Congress. He has had a persuasive influence with the governors across the nation. Yet this faith-based initiative is not yet public policy. He could only launch it by an executive order that bypassed Congress and that threatened certain court decisions.
You have to conclude that both religious leaders and political leaders see serious flaws in this program, or it would be the law of the land.
You mentioned charitable choice. It was a little-known provision of the 1996 welfare reform bill passed by Clinton.
Written by John Ashcroft.
Written by John Ashcroft, correct, although Clinton did sign the welfare bill. Al Gore ran in support of faith-based organizations. Who knows how he would have taken and run with it? Talk to me about what the president has done to augment, to grow, charitable choice since he's been president.
This whole discussion began with then-Senator John Ashcroft amending the welfare bill with a provision, little known at the time, called charitable choice. That went to the president's desk and was signed by President Bill Clinton. In the signing, President Clinton said, "This provision will never be implemented in any way that jeopardizes the religious freedom clauses in the Constitution."
However, that act, that signing of charitable choice amendment as legislation, is often referred to as the foundation for the faith-based initiative. We have seen a virtual explosion of the possibilities of federal entanglement in local religious organizations from that foundation, a foundation that overtly prohibited that kind of entanglement.
The president has rightly said, "On the basis of my personal experience, I want other people to know the transforming power of religion in their lives to correct social problems." And [he] has used the machinery, the money, the influence of government to try to implement that. It has met with political opposition. It's met with religious opposition. It's met with constitutional opposition, and yet he persists.
I admire his sincerity. I respect his persistence. But it's time for him to see there's a better way to do this. The whole federal budget is a moral document. If the president of the United States wants to see social services in this nation improved, he has not only the faith-based initiative line item; he has many other line items in the federal budget to which he can go to make funds available that will accomplish the purposes that he's tried to cluster all within the faith-based initiative.
The president of the United States can make a tremendous difference in the way the poorest of the poor, the most needy among us, are helped. And it is still an act of faith if it is done through a secular program rather than a religious program. It can be an expression of his faith. But it can be done without the imposition of faith on anyone, and with federal funds flowing to everyone.
Is it possible to point to any concrete examples of problems with the faith-based initiative? Or is it too early to talk about that this year?
The very pragmatic problems with the faith-based initiative are not hypothetical. If you look at what happened in Wisconsin, you see houses of worship and organizations talking about agencies for social delivery functioning with no fire codes, no codes for health standards that even can get up to the minimum of what's applied to most other institutions.
I've spent a good bit of time in Oklahoma, dealing with the faith-based initiative there. The Interfaith Alliance in Oklahoma has worked hard on this issue. Oklahoma is now thinking about not doing the faith-based initiative, because of the problems that they've encountered.
The state of Texas -- where this really was born and bred when George W. Bush was governor there -- has had radical second thoughts about the effectiveness of faith-based initiative, because they have seen the abuses of the funds that were given without regulations. They've seen agencies go off on their own and involve themselves in the kinds of activities that the federal government or a state government shouldn't embrace.
The problems are very real. Perhaps the surest sign of problems with this initiative are to be found in the reticence of the religious community to buy into an acceptance of this program. Amazingly, if you look across the ideological spectrum, you will find both those in the very conservative religious community, as well as those in the most progressive religious communities in one voice, saying, "This isn't the way to do this work."
In recent weeks, we've seen two or three court decisions that raise serious questions about the future of the faith-based initiative. I'm talking about the Supreme Court decision, Locke v. Davey, on whether or not government funds could go to support the education of a person studying for the ministry. In a striking 6-2 decision, the Supreme Court said government money can't be used to advance ministry preparation in a specific religious tradition.
Then we had the court in California saying that Catholic Charities had to provide birth control provisions in the insurance policies for their employees. One dissenting vote on that decision -- Justice Brown. Now this becomes significant for two reasons. Those courts are taking positions that threaten significant roadblocks to the faith-based initiative.
But the president, who already has bypassed Congress to do an executive order implementing the faith-based initiative, and who has really ignored those in the religious community that have raised serious objections to this program -- that president has singled out the three negative votes in those two decisions as votes from individuals to whom he wants to give more attention and authority.
The Supreme Court negative votes were Justices Scalia and Thomas. President Bush said in 2000 that Justices Scalia and Thomas, in his mind, represented model justices of the Supreme Court, the kind that he would like to see reproduced. He has already nominated Justice Brown in California to a Superior Court position in the District of Columbia.
The president that has bypassed Congress, bypassed the Council of Religious Organizations, is now ready, in his own way, to try and bypass the weight of judicial opinion in opposition to the faith-based initiative.
Can you talk with me about how this president uses religious language and, if you take issue with that, can you explain why?
I have problems from time to time with the way President Bush uses religious language. It's true that all presidents have used religious language. The word "God" is dotted throughout presidential speeches, really, across the history of the presidency.
But there's a difference in the religious language of this president and the religious language of former presidents. President Bush uses religious language, not in compliance with the so-called civic religion of this nation, but with the religion that is tradition-specific.
His is the language of evangelical Christianity. That language suggests, the way he uses it as president, that that is in fact the established religion in this nation. That has tremendously divisive problematic potential for a nation that is the most religiously pluralistic nation in the world.
The president of the United States is the chief executive officer of this nation, not the pastoral leader of this nation. The president is civic leader, political leader -- not religious leader.
Yes, thankfully, he has a profound religious faith, and I hope that he draws on that faith -- I think he does -- for personal sustenance, for strength, for courage. But no elected political leader has a right to try and use public office to advance his or her particular faith tradition. That's where I get real nervous, sometimes, with the way the president uses religious language.
In the state in which my church is located, in Louisiana, President Bush made a speech recently. He went to an African-American church in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, on Martin Luther King's birthday. In the course of his speech -- which turned out to be a lot about the faith-based initiative -- he turned to the pastor, who was sitting behind him, and took the Bible from his hand. He held up the Bible and he said, "This is the guidebook for the faith-based initiative. This is what we're trying to do, because we're trying to change people's lives."
The Bible, [a] guidebook for a public policy? …Now President Bush is the chief executive officer of this nation, pledged to defend the Constitution. He was speaking as a religious leader, not worried about the constitutional implications of that rhetoric. No president in contemporary America has the luxury of being insensitive to religious pluralism. It will divide religions in a destructive manner, and it will project ultimately a reaction to religion that will prove negative. The nation will be hurt and religion will be hurt.
What about the argument that President Bush's use of Christian language, and particularly evangelical language, is political?
I've always made it a policy not to judge motives. I'm going to say that President Bush uses that language because he has found in that religious tradition a strength that has made a tremendous difference in his life. He does it without appreciation for the vastness of religious pluralism in this nation and without, I think, a full understanding of the complexity of church-state relations in this nation.
However, I think because the president has political advisers whose eyes are fixed on the 2004 campaign and getting him re-elected, they never step in to say, "Mr. President, that may not be the best language to use," because they know that if he speaks out of the sincerity of his own appreciation for his religious tradition, that's going to play well with a voter base that they want to mobilize and energize.
Can you talk about how faith informs this president's politics?
I think it's clear from those who write about President Bush, those who know him well, those who interact with him every day, that the Christian faith is a tremendously important part of his life.
I've just read in one of the biographies of the president how, in Texas, as he was contemplating a run for the presidency, he gathered a group of ministers in the governor's office. He told them he was contemplating a run for the presidency, that he was feeling a call to do this. He asked them to pray with him, even to lay hands on him -- a Christian ritual -- to bless him in this run.
Now, personally, that's all right. I understand that. I happen to think that there are many, many people in political office who are there because of the religious motivation in their lives. They want to help people. They want to do good. Political office is a way to do that.
But it's a far cry from that kind of personal affirmation and personal religious motivation to run for office, to using your office to try and duplicate that same conviction, to perpetuate that particular religious tradition in the lives of others. One is personal; one is constitutional. The man in the presidency has a responsibility to protect the Constitution, even as he or she uses her religion in very personal ways to sustain their actions.
Within the first few days of taking office, President Bush took some actions that were very symbolic to the religious community. The appointment of John Ashcroft was one, and the re-instatement of the gag rule [on abortion] was another. There was the institution of the National Day of Prayer as well as the establishment of the White House Office of Faith-Based Community Initiatives.
From the first day this president set foot in the Oval Office, he showed us that faith was going to be at the top of his agenda in so many different ways -- some of them symbolic, but some of them having to do with the substance of public policy.
I could argue that it even started before he stepped into the Oval Office with the prayer service at the inauguration and with the prayer at the inauguration itself. That whole ceremony was insensitive to the vast religious pluralism which characterizes our nation.
We have to have a president that is sensitive to religious pluralism, that draws from his own personal faith in a way that does not in any way suggest that public policy will be established on the basis of the dictates of his religious tradition alone.
Can you talk about the controversy over whether politicians should put forth their political views based on religion?
Several issues in the news now point to the necessity of the people in this nation having a long, honest, thoughtful civil debate on the relationship between religion, politics and the institution of government. The proposed constitutional amendment on marriage is one of those issues. The continuing debate about abortion is one of those issues.
Here's what's involved. Here's what needs to be discussed. Should a person in public office attempt to use that office to legislate his or her particular religious views? Or are the values that should govern and guide public officials those common values of democracy that all of us know well?
My own view is that we should only legislate those values which are a part of the common good; that when we begin to try and legislate the particular values of a particular religious tradition, then we get into serious problems with religious liberty and maybe even compromise or eradicate the very guarantee that has let religion be vital in this land and has given religion a voice in government to begin with.
… One of the sensitivities in the religious community to what's coming from the White House now -- on a proposed constitutional amendment on marriage, and the proposal of spending $1.5 billion in the next federal budget to promote marriage -- comes from the discomforting alliance between this president and the religious right movement in this nation.
I think everybody would agree that marriage is an important institution. Does it belong to the government, or does it belong to religion? Who is going to answer that question? I hope not just a political leader. I hope not just people who sit the benches of various courts, because religion had a stake in this before there was ever a United States government.
So who resolves that? What view of marriage is going to get the support of $1.5 billion? Is it James Dobson? Is it Focus on the Family or is it the Family Research Council or is it Concerned Women of America or is it Gary Bauer? Because these are the people that the president has been listening to all this time.
So even those of us who want marriage to receive attention, who want to increase the stability of marital relationships across this nation, get very nervous, because these are the people who take an approach to marriage that says it is not only one man and one woman, it is one man who is superior to the one woman who needs to be submissive to the man, and the children come somewhere under that. Our government doesn't need to go there.
It seems like the undercurrent of this conversation … is not that it's a constitutional problem, but in a way, it could harm religion. Religion itself in this country is, in a sense, under attack. Do you agree with that, and if so, could you explain it a bit?
Look, I'm for religion. I've spent my whole life in religious communities. The motivations for what I do have deep personal historical religious roots. Much of the criticism that I offer --constitutionally, politically, and even more specifically related to the president -- are about what his way of treating religion ultimately does to undercut the authority, the uniqueness, the power of religion.
Every time that religion has identified itself or entangled itself with a particular political movement or a particular government, religion has been harmed by that. I see religion as a powerful positive healing force for this nation and the world. But that force is blunted, weakened, compromised inestimably, if we turn religion into a tool for advancing political strategy; if we make it a matter of how to win political office; if we treat it as anything other than a sacred part of life from which we ought to draw sustenance and values and strength for living courageously as good citizens.
It is because I am for religion that I critique making religion secondary and houses of worship political institutions.