Church, State, Bush and O'Hair

Posted: Jan 30, 2001 12:00 AM
"Lordy!'' I started to exclaim, before catching myself. Madalyn Murray O'Hair wouldn't have liked such a reaction to the apparent discovery this week of the grave in which a murderous associate stashed her, along with a son and granddaughter. Oh, the attention we formerly paid to what the late Mrs. O'Hair liked (publicity) and what she didn't like (religion)! The Christian grapevine regularly buzzed with rumors of new plots being hatched by the woman who had killed public school prayer. At one point, she was said to be working to stop outer-space prayers by astronauts. Long before O'Hair was kidnapped, five years ago, the futility of her quest to abolish God should have been plain as day. Pharaoh and the Philistines were unable to better Him; He was supposed to sweat ... Madalyn O'Hair? Yes, and that was before "compassionate conservatism'' -- George W. Bush's attempt to fuse religion and community service, making God more visible than in quite some time. For the Bush administration, this is religious-initiative week. The president is talking up the need to let "faith-based'' groups do more of the heavy lifting in after-school programs, prison ministries, drug counsels and so on -- in ways similar to those he encouraged while governor of Texas. An excellent man, Professor John DiIulio Jr., will head the newly created White House office overseeing the matter. Bush wants religious groups to receive billions of dollars over the next decade. "Compassion is the work of a nation, not just a government,'' he says. Not every American is falling-down thrilled. O'Hair tapped 30 years ago into a widening vein of skepticism, and sometimes fear, regarding a God of revelation. A self-described culture of "pluralism'' and "diversity'' looks doubtfully on those who claim to bear "the'' truth. Truth for you might not be truth for me, the pluralist submits. Such arguments are serious -- as are the counterarguments. Professor Marvin Olasky of the University of Texas, who coined the phrase "compassionate conservatism,'' has pointed out that private, "faith-based'' compassion is the American heritage. Government was Johnny-come-lately to the compassion/social-welfare business. Its strong points: money and power. Its liabilities: money and power. That is, government can't (and shouldn't) buy or bull its way into human hearts. All the same, it may be that what those hearts need most is a housecleaning: moral growth, and a renewal of spirit and conscience. Bush looks at good works churches and religious groups already -- not just prospectively -- are doing with prison inmates, unwed mothers and so on. He asks, doesn't this help government? (Sure.) Wouldn't more of this be useful? (Of course.) How can the government facilitate matters? (With money.) It would be naive -- which Bush isn't -- to ignore new realities. We aren't the same people who added "under God'' to the Pledge of Allegiance. That was well-nigh half a century ago. Time and O'Hair's court pleadings have flowed over us since then. Millions no longer feel the power of the old relationship with a transcendent Creator-God, bidding His people believe and live in certain ways. The cult of "church-state separation'' strongly continues, partly because religious liberals tend to favor it, and partly because our intellectual leaders harp on it. Journalists, professors, and whatnot, few of whom ever darken a church door, gaze with some suspicion on those who do. Suspicion isn't open hostility, O'Hair-style, but it clutters discourse. Rather than talk about how to relieve human woes, Americans fall into an absurd dance: government holding religion at a prissy and disdainful distance. The national debate over Bush's religious initiatives will be -- is "messy'' the word? We should welcome it anyway: the more so as we finally start to sense where O'Hairism leads and to take in the ghastly view.