God bless godlessness

William F. Buckley
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Posted: Feb 02, 2001 12:00 AM
It isn't clear, and can't be made entirely clear, exactly what would logically evolve from President Bush's determination to use the reserves of religious institutions in America to forward charitable and educational work undertaken by the government. In 1996 the great Welfare Reform Act signed by President Clinton sought to use religious-based organizations to help with the aims of the act, which were to reduce welfare and promote employment. All of the above is being transformed into a holy war against any possibility of surreptitous holiness.

Mr. Bush has put in charge of what is to be called the "White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives" someone brilliantly qualified to superintend the proposed activity and to maintain the correct lines of constitutional division. John DiIulio is a professor of political science who has taught at Princeton and is now with the University of Pennsylvania. Mr. DiIulio is a writer and analyst of some prominence, and well respected for the keen empirical edge he brings to the study of contemporary political problems.

The question before the house is, essentially, can one exploit the resources of a religious organization without violating the First Amendment?

Take a YMCA. Say the one next door, up in the Bronx. There's a gymnasium there and a basketball court and a library, and they're trying to raise money to build a swimming pool. In the bad old days, its resources were available only to males, as in "Young Men." But it is open now to young women. Nobody asks at the door whether you went to church last Sunday or to a synagogue on Saturday. Question: Does a federal dollar sent to that YMCA constitute a violation of the law, notwithstanding that the the legislators' motivation is exclusively secular?

Stephen Goldsmith, a former mayor of Indianapolis and critical adviser, during the campaign, to George W., will advise the president on the effort. He has said: "Government should never fund religion. It can fund the soup, it can fund the shelter; it shouldn't fund the Bibles." So to speak, the challenge seems to be: Can you take the word Christian away from the Young Men's Christian Association?

There is a very high alert out there against any possibility that one copy of the Lord's Prayer might inadvertently be printed on that roll of paper that was paid for by government funds. Rep. Chet Edwards of Texas has furrowed his brow over such possibilities. "I don't want Bob Jones University to be able to take federal dollars for an alcohol treatment program and put out a sign that says no Catholics or Jews need apply here for a federally funded job." Another perspective, surely, would be gratitude for efforts to help alcoholics, even if they are mere Protestants.

Conservatives aren't thoughtlessly enthusiastic about the Bush program inasmuch as, once again, we have the instrument of government engaged in activity that is best supervised by (a) non-government, and (b) a smaller unit of government. What conservatives are going to have to get used to is that certain fights we have waged are, quite simply, lost. It is fine, in our little seminars, to make the case against a federal Social Security program, but it pays to remind ourselves that nobody outside the walls of that classroom is going to pay much attention to our Platonic exercises.

Which means that we need to make prudent accommodations, and one of them is to use the apparatus of government in whatever way can be done to stress the non-government aspect of the activity considered. If we want to reduce welfare and promote employment, and the local YMCA is useful in forwarding that end, we're better off than going for an exclusively federal enterprise.

The scaremongers, meanwhile, are always with us. Barry Lynn, who is head of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, had to be picked up off the floor last week when President Bush made his announcement, so shocked was he at this turn toward theocracy.

Columnist Michael Kinsley, the urbane editor of Slate, amused himself in his column by remarking the frequency with which our public servants are saying "God bless America." He consulted the Federal Document Clearing House and the Dow Jones Publications Library and did an international search in English through a U.S.-based media collection. What he discovered was that these invocations are almost distinctively American. What he has neglected to ponder is why America is so uniquely blessed. Ever think of that, Kinsley?