The Disappearing WallPublished: April 26, 2005
To the dismay of many mainstream religious leaders, the Senate majority leader, Bill Frist, participated in a weekend telecast organized by conservative Christian groups to smear Democrats as enemies of "people of faith." Besides listening to Senator Frist's videotaped speech, viewers heard a speaker call the Supreme Court a despotic oligarchy. Meanwhile, the House majority leader, Tom DeLay, has threatened the judiciary for not following the regressive social agenda he shares with the far-right fundamentalists controlling his party.
Apart from confirming an unwholesome disrespect for traditional American values like checks and balances, the assault on judges is part of a wide-ranging and successful Republican campaign to breach the wall between church and state to advance a particular brand of religion. No theoretical exercise, the program is having a corrosive effect on policymaking and the lives of Americans.
The centerpiece is President Bush's so-called faith-based initiative, which disregards decades of First Amendment law and civil rights protections. Mr. Bush promised that federal money would not be used to support religious activities directly, but it is. The program has channeled billions of taxpayers' dollars to churches and other religion-based providers of social services under legally questionable rules that allow plenty of room for proselytizing and imposing religious tests on hiring. The initiative even provides taxpayers' money to build and renovate houses of worship that are also used to offer social services.
Offices in the White House and federal departments pump public money to religious groups, but provide scant oversight or accountability to make sure that the money is spent on real services, not preaching. Indeed, Mr. Bush's goal is to finance programs that are explicitly religious.
A recent want ad posted by a taxpayer-financed vocational program of the Firm Foundation for inmates in a Pennsylvania jail stipulated that a job seeker must be "a believer in Christ and Christian Life today" and that the workday "will start with a short prayer." A major portion of inmates' time is spent on religious lectures and prayer, according to a lawsuit filed by two civil liberties groups.
The Bush administration and Congress have turned over issues bearing on women's reproductive rights to far-right religious groups opposed not just to abortion, but to expanded stem-cell research, effective birth control and AIDS prevention programs. The Food and Drug Administration continues to dawdle over approving over-the-counter access to emergency contraception for fear of inflaming members of the religious right who deem any interference with the implantation of a fertilized egg to be an abortion. This foot-dragging may be good politics from one narrow view, but it harms women and drives up the nation's abortion rate.
The result of this open espousal of one religious view is a censorious climate in which a growing number of pharmacists feel free to claim moral grounds for refusing to dispense emergency contraception and even birth control pills prescribed by a doctor. Public schools shy away from teaching about evolution, and science museums reject scientifically sound documentaries that may offend Christian fundamentalists. Public television stations were afraid to run a children's program in which a cartoon bunny met a lesbian couple.
In a recent Op-Ed article in The Times, John Danforth, the former Republican senator and U.N. ambassador who is also a minister, said his party was becoming a political arm of the religious right. He called it a formula for divisiveness that ultimately threatened the party's future. With the nation lurching toward the government sponsorship of religion, and the Senate nearing a showdown over Mr. Bush's egregious judicial nominees, it is a warning well worth heeding.