On the Contrary

Sectarian conservatives have reason to resent the First Amendment: It prohibits government officials from posting the Ten Commandments in public places while it protects the Godless Americans March on Washington (scheduled for Nov. 2.) No wonder they think the road to hell is paved with the Bill of Rights.

The Constitution surely paves the way to ecumenism, the scourge of most sectarians. Invoking the First Amendment, courts have consistently struck down recurrent efforts by local officials to hang copies of the Ten Commandments in public schools and courtrooms. This is because the Decalogue is not a ceremonial, nonsectarian reference to God (which the Constitution has been construed to allow); it is, as the U.S. Supreme Court has observed, a "sacred text in the Jewish and Christian faiths." Its adoption by government threatens religious as well as nonreligious minorities. Skeptical, secular civil libertarians are generally considered the enemies of religion because they are hostile to government sponsorship of sectarian religious institutions or beliefs and fearful of religious majoritarianism. But, in fact, they are quite protective of religious liberty: People who consider all religions equally false are more likely to believe that all religions should be equally free than people who distinguish between false faiths and true ones.

So, strange as it may seem, I consider the American Civil Liberties Union a better friend to religious belief than George W. Bush, who is mostly a friend to conservative Christians and maybe some Orthodox Jews. He may kneel in prayer every morning and peruse the Bible daily, and he does pay rhetorical homage to Judeo-Christian-Muslim traditions, but his administration is fiercely sectarian when disbursing funds or ideologies.

One obvious example of sectarian government is the administration's focus on abstinence-only sex education. (The allocation of federal dollars to abstinence-only programs was authorized by Congress in 1996; Bush is now seeking additional funds for them.) Of course, the ideal of abstinence is not sectarian or even inherently religious. But implementation of abstinence programs is apt to be relegated to sectarian groups. The state of Louisiana, for example, receives about $1.6 million in federal funds annually and disburses grants to conservative Christian groups that teach abstinence with such educational tools as Bible lessons and the performance of "Christ-centered" skits starring characters such as the "Bible guy." The Rapides Station Community Ministries, a typical grantee, has reported that it used public funds to support a religious radio program and a youth revival. A monthly report by the ministry to the Louisiana Governor's Program on Abstinence (obtained by the ACLU, which is suing the state) notes, "December was an excellent month for our program. We were able to focus on the virgin birth and make it apparent that God desire(s) sexual purity as a way of life." In order to keep teenagers pure, Louisiana has also funded prayer sessions at abortion clinics organized by the Catholic Church.

The state has characterized these programs as anomalous (they're clearly unconstitutional); the ACLU contends that about one-third of community-based, abstinence-only grantees are engaged in religious proselytizing. The religious bias of Louisiana's abstinence program is made clear in some of its official publications, which claim that sexually transmitted diseases have spread because "we removed God from the classroom," concluding that "it's time to restore our Judeo-Christian heritage in America." The inclusion of Judaism seems merely polite, but perfunctory references to the Judeo-Christian tradition still pass for nonsectarianism in much of the country.

Like abstinence, nonsectarianism is much more popular in theory than in practice. That's why advocates of government-funded religion invoke the vague, all-inclusive rhetoric of "faith-based" programs: It obscures the creation of a sectarian social-welfare system. So follow the money.

Some of it leads to Pat Robertson, whose Virginia-based Operation Blessing International recently received a $500,000 grant from the Compassion Capital Fund, part of the Bush administration's plan to divert tax dollars to sectarian religious groups. Robertson had previously denounced the "faith-based initiative" as a "real Pandora's box" after realizing that religious minorities would be legally eligible to share in its largesse. Such groups as the Unification Church, the Hare Krishnas and the Church of Scientology "could all become financial beneficiaries of the proposal to extend eligibility for government grants to religious charities," Robertson lamented on The 700 Club in February 2001. He subsequently warned that religious groups could become dangerously addicted to government funds. They will "begin to be nurtured, if I can use that term, on federal money, and then they can't get off of it. It'll be like a narcotic; they can't then free themselves later on."

Now Robertson is hooked, and he's not just using government funds -- he's trafficking in them. Operation Blessing is authorized to disburse the money it receives to smaller religious groups of its choosing. No Unitarians need apply. No Muslims, either. Muhammad was "a killer," Robertson recently remarked on FOX TV's Hannity & Colmes. "To think that (Islam) is a peaceful religion is fraudulent." Methodists, Presbyterians and Episcopalians might also be on Robertson's blacklist for government funds: These faiths are infected with "the spirit of [the] Antichrist," he reportedly observed in 1991.

Bush may not share all of Robertson's biases or his wacky worldviews. But the Bush administration's compassionate conservatives have made Robertson their agent in disbursing "compassion capital"; with a $500,000 grant, they are sponsoring his religious bigotry. If civil libertarians were the enemies of religious belief, they'd stop protecting it from such friends.