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President's job isn't to save souls

December 15, 2007|By ALLAN POWELL

For those who wish to be informed about the present state of affairs vis?vis church-state relations, a recently published book will help do the job. The Rev. Barry Lynn, a minister for the United Church of Christ and presently executive secretary for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, has written a very readable account of the massive escalation of attempts (and successes) to demolish the wall of separation between two rivals for power.

In "Piety & Politics: The Right-Wing Assault on Religious Freedom," Rev. Lynn gives a detailed, very personal account of the determined antagonism to one of America's great contributions to political thought.

One could suppose that an ordained minister might level his shots at secularists who have long been accused of trying to reduce the power of religion in public life. But Lynn is more concerned about the overreach of about 14 to 18 percent of our population who make up what is popularly known as the "religious right." Lynn considers this to be a social force working to establish a theocracy in America.

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Before taking a look at what is troubling to Rev. Lynn, it might be instructive to reflect on a point (made by a secularist) about their alleged desire to remove religion from public life. For one thing, it is an unrealistic program for anyone familiar with the sociology of religion.

Too many people cannot ? or will not ? face life without metaphysical crutches, thereby assuring the permanence of religions. In addition, most secularists are also pluralists who expect and accept all legally viable styles of religious expression to exist in an open society. They do, however, have a profound distrust of priest-craft and evangelical, pulpit-thumping showmanship.

Weighing heavily on the mind of Rev. Lynn is the increasing readiness for evangelical sects to press for more and more money from the public treasury. Lynn has good reason to be alarmed. A recent Government Accounting Office document reports that more than $500 million was spent between 2001, when the Faith Based Initiative was introduced, and June 2006.

What should startle the American citizen is the fact that all of this entanglement of church and state was created by the stroke of a pen by a president who completely bypassed Congress by issuing an executive order. The obvious purpose was to satisfy and solidify the religious right that had contributed so mightily to the president's bid for the White House.

For those who may doubt that the Faith Based Initiative is a politically motivated plan to garner votes by the use of religion, the words of George Bush should remove any such doubts.

During a church service in New Orleans in January 2004, he told the congregation that he wanted to fund groups that "save Americans one soul at a time." Further, (waving a Bible) the president added, "This handbook is a good go-by faith-based programs are only effective because they do practice faith."

When in our history was it the job of the government to save souls? When was it constitutional for the government to fund charitable causes by grants issued to religious organizations? More importantly, why is there not more public outrage at this affront to the First Amendment?

Rev. Lynn's book is replete with reports of the varied means to dismantle the wall of separation between church and state. Funneling money to churches by the use of vouchers, placing religious icons on public property, demands to insert theological dogma into science texts or violating tax laws (e.g. 501 (c) (3) ) that forbid religious leaders from campaigning for political candidates in churches are just several ways the "religious right" is not likely to be deterred by appeals to reason.

In their view, reason should always be subordinated to faith. Therefore, only an alert and involved citizenry can be a countervailing presence to their relentless efforts to subvert the First Amendment and entangle church and state.

Allan Powell is a Hagerstown resident who writes for The Herald-Mail.

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