Before George W. & Co. arrived in Washington, it was easier to talk about sex and politics than about religion and politics. Like so much else in Washington, that's changed.
Religion is on the cutting edge. Faith is intellectually chic. Arguments over sacred vs. profane, virtue vs. vulgar, responsibility vs. raunch are in, in, in. Theology may not be as titillating as adultery as a topic for public discussion, but it's likely to have a more important influence on public policy.
There was electricity in the air the other day when the Ethics and Public Policy Center, a conservative think tank, held "A Luncheon Conversation" with John J. DiIulio, director of the Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives for the White House. Mr. DiIulio has been the moving target for those who want the wall of separation between church and state to be so high that you'd have to be an astronaut to see over it to find a little perspective.
Religious conservatives, who fear that faith-based organizations will become little bureaucracies preoccupied with paperwork and the pursuit of grants, are suspicious of him, too. They worry that religious organizations will become dependent on government subsidies, and thus vulnerable to presidential agendas when we get a less open-minded president than George W. Bush.
Those on the left describe John DiIulio as an ayatollah. Those on the right say he's creating a Humpty Dumpty who will ultimately fall off the wall and all the king's horses and all the king's men won't be able to put him together again.
Such arguments miss the point. When you listen to the man, he sounds like Mr. Common Sense with a sense of humor. "Our office does not make you hum hymns while hammering nails," he says. "When somebody sneezes it's all right to say 'God bless you.'" (Amen to that.)
The issue, as he sees it, is about creating a level playing field that doesn't discriminate against "godly people," the grassroots Josephs (and Josephines) whose religious faith inspires them to do the Lord's work. If they can perform as well as workers in secular programs in caring for the inner-city poor without proselytizing (this may be the big if), why not let them prove it? Those who make the cut will be closely scrutinized and if they mistake their mission to minister souls rather than bodies, they'll fail.
What should concern us is results. If every new program was judged only on its potential for failure, there could be no solutions for anything, secular or sacred. Are we so cynical as to believe that faith-based programs are incapable of following federal guidelines?
The tidiest approach to faith-based social services, it seems to me, is through vouchers, to enable a person in need to bypass the arguments over church vs. state and choose a program he thinks will serve him best, neutralizing the source of the funding.
Americans are among the most generous people in the world, the first to rush in with charity and aid in the wake of disaster around the world. The underclass in our inner cities make up our own permanent disaster area. Many of the men and women who want to help them are inspired by their faith to pursue human redemption through faith-based institutions. Why exclude them from receiving government support if they can meet the same standards as secular organizations? Their combined purpose, after all, is the same: to wean the poor from public Welfare to enable them to support themselves.
In his best-selling book of the '90s, "The Culture of Disbelief," Yale Professor Stephen Carter observes that we have become a "sophisticated" culture hostile to religion. Liberals, especially, have forgotten that it was religious activists who fought against slavery and for civil rights. He quotes a Jewish scholar who observed that the trouble with America was not that it was a Christian nation, but that too often it was not - meaning that the Christian majority often did not live up to the responsibilities of its profession of faith.
Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black wrote that the First Amendment had "erected a wall between church and state." That's a powerful metaphor. But as Stephen Carter suggests, "in order to make the founders' vision compatible with the structure and needs of modern society, the wall has to have a few doors in it." Finding the right key to unlock those doors is our responsibility.