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The Dark Side of “Faith-Based Initiatives”

by Ira Chernus on Feb 21, 2001

Ira Chernus

President Bush’s Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives — created to give religious groups tax dollars to operate social welfare programs — opened on Feb. 20. Behind the administration’s stated pious hopes for this project lies an unspoken fear that respect for rules and authority has broken down. If we do, in fact, have a crisis of authority, this may prove a dangerous way to resolve it.

The link between “faith-based initiatives” and worries about authority is evident in the work of a Texas professor and born-again Christian, who is one of George W. Bush’s designated philosophers: Marvin Olasky. Bush has praised Olasky as “compassionate conservatism’s leading thinker,” saying of his outlook: “It is an approach I share.”

Olasky wants to take our social welfare programs back to the 19th century. He argues that when private charities, mostly religious ones, gave help instead of the government, the poor and needy made a lot more progress. Other historians think that Olasky understates the role of government in the 19th century and overstates the success of religion-based programs. But Olasky’s version is the prevailing myth in the Bush administration.

This myth comes out of the 1820s. Christian moral reformers of that day would have applauded Olasky’s formulation: we have so many poor and needy people because “man is sinful and likely to want something for nothing.” Most of the needy got that way because of “bad attitudes — appetite and lust and idleness.”

For most of the 20th century, this was called “blaming the victim.” Now the White House calls it “compassion.” So our language, too, is returning to the 19th century. Olasky praises “our predecessors [who] made moral demands on recipients of aid.” What our 19th-century predecessors demanded, he tells us, was the self-discipline to live by society’s rules and to work hard, even if rewards were scant. In his inaugural address, Mr. Bush called that self-discipline “private character” and “order in their souls.”

Why did this myth become so popular in the 1820s? One major reason was that people were confused about questions of authority. In earlier times, the social and political elites could expect deference from their “inferiors.” Everyone knew who was in charge. And since the elites were pillars of the churches, the lines of authority were all anchored in God.

In the 1820s and beyond, as democracy and access to wealth spread, it was harder and harder to tell who wielded authority. States no longer sponsored official churches; religious and political authority were separated. No one could say for certain who should make and enforce the rules, or whether there were any permanent rules at all.

Moral reform movements, usually led by Protestant ministers, appealed to people who felt overwhelmed by change and were often insecure about their own economic or social status. They wanted to resolve the crisis of authority by (as abolitionist leader William Lloyd Garrison put it) freeing people “from the bondage of sin and bringing them under the dominion of God.”

For far different reasons, we have experienced a crisis of authority in the last four decades. From the family to the national level, patterns of cultural authority once taken for granted are now open to question. Many Americans fear that our society may deteriorate if no one clearly has power to make and enforce fixed rules. This is the soil in which pious reform movements flourish.

Like his 19th-century models, Olasky says that the needy will be helped only if they accept the rule of a Father in heaven. They “need the internal pressure to [as Booker T. Washington said], ‘live honored and useful lives, modeled after our perfect leader, Christ.'”

The president tip-toes around this issue, for political and constitutional reasons. But he insists that religious groups receiving our tax dollars need not “change their mission,” which is usually to promote belief in eternal rules from a heavenly ruler. He may not think religious authority is necessary to improve people’s lives. But he seems to think it is sufficient.

Mr. Bush has declared his aim “to change the culture of America — to usher in ‘the responsibility era.'” He sounds most energetic when he talks about punishing “irresponsible” Americans, who don’t follow the rules or measure up to the standards. He seems determined to prove that as long as he is in charge there will be no crisis of authority.

The Bush-Olasky myth threatens more than just the precarious wall between church and state. Its authoritarian mood portends more and harsher prisons, more executions (including, inevitably, of the innocent), more struggling public schools and students stigmatized as “failures.” It encourages a return to the patriarchal patterns of 19th-century family life. It substitutes unquestionable authority for free inquiry and debate.

Before we embrace seemingly innocent “faith-based initiatives, “let’s look closely at the motives behind them and the changes they can bring along with them.

Ira Chernus is a professor of religious studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder and a writer for History News Service.