When the Supreme Court on Monday ruled that the Bush administration did not act unconstitutionally by sponsoring conferences largely designed to teach faith-based groups about federal grant applications, hard-core secularists were aghast: Here comes theocracy! And yet, the Supreme Court -- led by its two George W. Bush appointees -- was merely taking one small step toward returning Washington to the principles enunciated by George Washington.
That earlier George had two bedrock principles regarding religion and public policy, and as we head toward the Fourth of July, they are especially worth remembering. First, as Washington wrote in 1789, "Every man, conducting himself as a good citizen, and being accountable to God alone for his religious opinions, ought to be protected in worshipping the Deity according to the dictates of his own conscience." Second, if Americans stopped believing in God, the nation was in big trouble.
Here's Washington's bell-ringing affirmation in his 1796 farewell address: "Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of patriotism, who should labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of men and citizens. The mere politician, equally with the pious man, ought to respect and to cherish them."
Washington offered specific warnings: "Where is the security for property, for reputation, for life, if the sense of religious obligation desert the oaths which are the instruments of investigation in courts of justice? And let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle."
He concluded, "Virtue or morality is a necessary spring of popular government. The rule, indeed, extends with more or less force to every species of free government. Who that is a sincere friend to it can look with indifference upon attempts to shake the foundation of the fabric?"
Well, the foundation has been shaken and stirred again and again over the past half century. For example, the traditional American way of helping the needy was not just to send a check but to provide opportunities to work. Programs that emphasized work rather than welfare fostered morality among the poor but also among the rich, who did not have the excuse of thinking that a bureaucrat would take care of social problems.
From the 1960s through the 1990s, though, official Washington -- often forgetting George Washington's emphasis on religious freedom and morality -- forced all Americans to support liberal programs that treat the poor as helpless pets of the rich. It's in this context that complaints about the June 25 high court Hein v. Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) decision should be viewed: The White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives was merely giving groups with a George Washingtonian emphasis on virtue the opportunity to apply for grants. No big deal, although the FFRF tried to make it appear so.
By the way, I'm not thrilled with the prospect of the federal government expanding its giving to religious groups: It would be better for the feds to get out of the grant-making business and set up a system of tax credits (more powerful than deductions) that would let taxpayers give money directly to the organizations of their choice, taking that off their taxes. But until that day arrives, let's recall George Washington's understanding and not discriminate against groups that agree with him.