In our God we trust
It’s an old American adage that it’s not polite to discuss religion or politics with new acquaintances. Well politeness was damned last Saturday at the Freedoms Foundation in Valley Forge where the Lincoln Institute of Public Opinion Research, a Harrisburg based educational foundation, held a Public Opinion Court on President Bush’s proposed Faith Based Federal Funding Initiative.
A public opinion court is like a focus group with a public policy twist. The way Penn State’s Chuck Kennedy runs them it’s a town meeting with two edges, pro and con. Saturday’s group was the liveliest ever. 15 strangers from central and southeastern Pennsylvania poured straight out of America’s melting pot to explore President Bush’s faith based Federal funding concepts for three hours. They were about as American as we get. From the young African-American female transportation worker to the semi retired Jewish-American salesman they came from all parts of our unique cultural mosaic representing all ages, national origins, economic classes – and religious beliefs.
Their comments reflected America’s traditional relationship with the Almighty. It’s always been confounding. In God we trust is our national slogan and in our national pledge we are one nation under God yet the government is expressly forbidden from endorsing any religion by our Constitution. In their concerns about faith based funding the group seemed to reflect the same thoughts as the founding fathers, government and god don’t mix well.
This cycle of confusion seems to be a healthy historical trend. We aren’t even sure just how religious we are. Ten years ago Tom W. Smith at the University of Chicago’s National Opinion Research Center did a comprehensive study of American trends in religious preference since World War II. The study showed that how you even ask Americans about their religious beliefs can make an extraordinary difference in the results that you get. Ask Americans if they believe in some god, about 90% of them do. Ask them about a denominational preference beyond Protestant, Catholic or Jew and the numbers drop. Slice them down even further to actual attendance at a house of worship or membership in a specific congregation the number for combined Protestant denominations remained relatively stable at about 63% but the Catholic and Jewish numbers varied tremendously.
When it comes to doling out Federal dollars the question is: whose god gets it? Yours or somebody else’s? And what is a religion? Will religions centered far from mainstream traditions like Wiccans and Satanists who might do charitable work get a check from Washington? David Koresh’s Branch Davidians sect in Waco, Texas was considered by its followers to be a religion, would they have been eligible for funding? If Federal funding isn’t increased will national faith based organizations like the Catholic Charities Appeal, The Allied Jewish Appeal or The Lutheran World Relief Fund lose funding? Begging the ultimate question: when a Federal bureaucracy starts deciding which religious programs get support will the bureaucratic tendency to over-regulate threaten to stifle our most fundamental freedom?
Pennsylvania’s founder, William Penn, created the roots of American religious freedom and tolerance in the new country more than 100 years before the revolution. The American Revolutionaries merely affirmed Penn’s belief when they gathered in Philadelphia and wrote on the first line of the first amendment to our Constitution: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.” Clearly separating church and state in our political protocols.
In Valley Forge last Saturday, “we the people” spoke about compassion, religion and mixing up Federal Funding in that equation. Two Pennsylvanians with key roles in President Bush’s initiative will get those results. Philadelphia’s John DiLulio, from the University of Pennsylvania and Dr. Don Eberly from the Fatherhood Initiative based in Lancaster County head up the White House Office on Faith Based Federal Initiatives. When they read the results they might want to remember another old American adage: the road to hell is paved with good intentions.