Public Nuisances

Posted: Jun 28, 2001 12:00 AM
WASHINGTON, D.C. -- The political high seas against which the Bush administration's "faith-based initiative" now sails have got me wondering. For decades, atheism has been steadily losing its luster. No more do we encounter at the highest levels of public life distinguished intellectuals boldly boasting of their "atheism." Atheism is passe. So why is God in such hot water with Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, a leading opponent of the Bush initiative? The Bush administration's initiative would allow churches and other faith-based organizations to win government contracts for administering social services. That strikes me as a good idea. The homeless woman shambling down darkened streets needs a caring hand. Government bureaucracies swaddled in red tape can only do so much for her, and very little after-hours and off in a dirty alley far from the office. The burned-out alcoholics and druggies need more than government can offer; and they need imaginative interventionists and care-givers, who do not have to consult government manuals. Moreover, the conflicting interests tacked on to government programs have made it almost impossible to minister to these wretches. The elaborate series of regulations and laws supposedly safeguarding the mentally ill vastly limits what government bureaucrats can do to protect the mentally ill from themselves, from each other and from all the other predators out there. The homeless constitute but one of several groups of suffering citizens who might benefit from the more informal care providers offered by church groups. Yet so-called liberals worry about what these agents of God might do. In Chicago's South Side, a Christian employed by a local church might lean over a helpless old drunk and whisper, "God loves you." A rabbi's associate might mention a prophet's invocation of virtue to an orphaned child. And I cannot even speculate on what a Hare Krishna dervish might do when, from a government-funded soup kitchen, he pours an indigent a bowl of soup. There was a time when humanitarians did not worry about God's agents taking a hand in social service. They wanted to get the wretch out of the gutter and the poor a square meal. Did Eleanor Roosevelt worry about God's agents getting assistance from New Dealers in 1936? I have seen no mention of it. Admittedly, it is not only the Godphobes who view the administration's faith-based initiative with foreboding. Some conservative Christians fear that government involvement in their programs will somehow lead to corruption of those programs. They apparently fear that the lure of government money will weaken their faith and deter them from a faithful reading of the Good Book. The consequence of all this apprehension among the Godphobes and the faithful is that the Bush administration's attempt to make a fresh start against the human suffering in our midst is about to be scotched on Capitol Hill. Frankly, I find that amazing. All the liberals up there are in Congress in part because of the hymns they have intoned about human misery. They claim it is everywhere. And the conservatives are often there because they advocate innovative initiatives by private citizens in ameliorating human misery. Well, the administration is advocating something innovative and totally focused on the suffering and disadvantaged. If life is as painful as the liberals say and innovative programs as important as the conservatives say, why not give this initiative a chance? Undoubtedly, some government money will be misspent and even spent in corrupt ways. That is what happens in government programs, but we have them anyway -- along with ways to prevent excess. And there will be times when one of God's agents goes over the top with an importunate prayer or pious gesture. But what is most important is that a new and vigorous attempt is being made to assuage suffering and overcome deprivation. Given all the lamentation against suffering and deprivation that we hear in the public discourse, surely it is better to try this new approach than simply to reject it and let the suffering around us suffer more. As for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, forget God. She is not that big a problem.

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