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Blogging Against Theocracy: God, Brought to You by Your Government

[Ed. Note: All weekend long we have the opportunity to Blog Against Theocracy. How do you participate? Just post something this weekend about, and in support of, separation of Church and State.This was originally posted on December 12, 2006.]

It?s gotten to the point where even attempting to blog on the weekends is an exercise in frustration, so I?ve pretty much stopped trying anymore. Had I been blogging, or even reading blogs this weekend, I would definitely have covered this New York Times article on tax-payer funding proselytizing by evangelical Christians; in this case, quite literally, to a captive audience.

Life was different in Unit E at the state prison outside Newton, Iowa.

The toilets and sinks ? white porcelain ones, like at home ? were in a separate bathroom with partitions for privacy. In many Iowa prisons, metal toilet-and-sink combinations squat beside the bunks, to be used without privacy, a few feet from cellmates.

The cells in Unit E had real wooden doors and doorknobs, with locks. More books and computers were available, and inmates were kept busy with classes, chores, music practice and discussions. There were occasional movies and events with live bands and real-world food, like pizza or sandwiches from Subway. Best of all, there were opportunities to see loved ones in an environment quieter and more intimate than the typical visiting rooms.

But the only way an inmate could qualify for this kinder mutation of prison life was to enter an intensely religious rehabilitation program and satisfy the evangelical Christians running it that he was making acceptable spiritual progress. The program ? which grew from a project started in 1997 at a Texas prison with the support of George W. Bush, who was governor at the time ? says on its Web site that it seeks ?to ?cure? prisoners by identifying sin as the root of their problems? and showing inmates ?how God can heal them permanently, if they turn from their sinful past.?

This is the same faith-based and tax-payer funded Prison Fellowship program that I blogged about earlier, which is supported by ex-Watergate felon Charles Colson (who is, by the way a hero of David Kuo?s, whose book, Tempting Faith, I reviewed earlier) and is one of many such programs proliferating across the country. The Times article is one of a series (also covered earlier) on what I think will be one of the enduring legacies of the Bush administration: undermining separation of church and state by weakening regulations designed to keep the government out of the business of endorsing or underwriting one particular faith. (Or a particular version of one faith, given that the IRS has taken notice of political activity in progressive churches after years of ignoring the same in conservative churches, and on a much larger scale.)

In this case, it?s the government handing out tax dollars to religious organizations who then use it to proselytize for their particular version of Christianity and/or to discriminate against those who don?t share their religious beliefs and practices, as the 95%-government-funded Salvation Army does. And while the government isn?t necessarily giving them funding specifically for those purposes, the combination of a lack of oversight in the administration?s faith-based initiatives program, and Congress actively weakening regulations intended to prohibit just such a use of government funding (and making it more difficult to fight for church/state separation in the courts) seem to have produced that result.

And given the political aims of the movement, explicitly stated by Colson, it?s not hard to believe that the outcome ? if not intended ? is at least welcomed by the White House and the Republican party. Because it represents, I think, a nearly permanent union between the American government and a specific branch of American Christianity that policy makers will find difficult to dismantle, if indeed they have the political will to do so at all.

As for the political aims, don?t take my word for it. Take theirs.

For years, Colson and his backers have talked about saturating public institutions with the proper ?biblical worldview? ? one of fundamentalist Christianity. Colson focused on prisons in part due to his personal history but also because prisons are a soft target. Public opinion leans toward a punishment model of corrections, and many rehabilitative or work programs have dried up in recent years. Recidivism rates remain high, leading some to back just about any approach that promises to prevent inmates from committing new crimes once they are released.

That bit about saturating the public institutions? They aren?t kidding. Remember the evangelical ?saturation? of the Air Force Academy? Remember Gen. William Boykin speaking to church groups in his uniform? Well, multiply that by the seven Army and Air Force officers who appeared in uniform in a video for an evangelical organization.

In the video, much of which was filmed inside the Pentagon, four generals and three colonels praise the Christian Embassy, a group that evangelizes among military leaders, politicians and diplomats in Washington. Some of the officers describe their efforts to spread their faith within the military.

?I found a wonderful opportunity as a director on the joint staff, as I meet the people that come into my directorate,? Air Force Maj. Gen. Jack J. Catton Jr. says in the video. ?And I tell them right up front who Jack Catton is, and I start with the fact that I?m an old-fashioned American, and my first priority is my faith in God, then my family and then country. I share my faith because it describes who I am.?

Pete Geren, a former acting secretary of the Air Force who oversaw the service?s response in 2005 to accusations that evangelical Christians were pressuring cadets at the Air Force Academy, also appears in the video. The Christian Embassy ?has been a rock that I can rely on, been an organization that helped me in my walk with Christ, and I?m just thankful for the service they give,? he says.

The 10-minute video is on the group?s Web site, The organization was founded nearly 30 years ago by the late Bill Bright, who also founded Campus Crusade for Christ. The Christian Embassy Web site says the group holds prayer breakfasts each Wednesday in the Pentagon?s executive dining room and organizes small groups to help military leaders ?bridge the gap between faith and work.?

Army Brig. Gen. Bob Casen refers in the video to the Christian Embassy?s special efforts to reach admirals and generals through Flag Fellowship groups. Whenever he sees another fellowship member, he says, ?I immediately feel like I am being held accountable, because we are the aroma of Jesus Christ.?

The Military Religious Freedom Foundation, a watchdog group led by retired Air Force lawyer Michael L. ?Mikey? Weinstein, is requesting an investigation in a letter to the Defense Department?s inspector general.

In uniform, filmed in the Pentagon, and according to the Post article the video carried no disclaimer that the views expressed in it are not those of the department of defense. Christian Embassy has added a disclaimer here, probably since the Post article was published. Speaking of captive audiences, one wonders what it would be like for a non-Christian (or even an atheist, let alone gay service members) to find themselves in one of these guys? commands.

The Times article about Prison Fellowship also mentions another captive audience in Michigan.

Those constitutional problems sharpen when young people are the intended beneficiaries of these transformational ministries. In recent years, several judges have concluded that children and teenagers, like prisoners, have too few options and too little power to make the voluntary choices the Supreme Court requires when public money flows to programs involving religious instruction or indoctrination.

That was the conclusion last year of a federal judge in Michigan, in a case filed by Teen Ranch, a nonprofit Christian facility that provides residential care for troubled or abused children ages 11 to 17.

In 2003, state officials imposed a moratorium on placements of children there, primarily because of its intensively religious programming. Lawyers for the ranch went to court to challenge that moratorium.

?Teen Ranch acknowledges that it is overtly and unapologetically a Christian facility with a Christian worldview that hopes to touch and improve the lives of the youth served by encouraging their conversion to faith in Christ, or assisting them in deepening their pre-existing Christian faith,? observed a United States District judge, Robert Holmes Bell, in a decision released in September 2005.

Although youngsters in state custody could not choose where to be placed, they could refuse to go to the ranch if they objected to its religious character. As a result, the ranch?s lawyers argued, the state money was constitutionally permissible.

The state contended that the children in its care were ?too young, vulnerable and traumatized? to make genuine choices. The ranch disputed that and added that the children had case workers and other adults to guide them. Judge Bell rejected Teen Ranch?s arguments. ?Regardless of whether state wards are particularly vulnerable, they are children,? he wrote.

Really, anyone who needs services is a captive audience, and when the state turns over social services to ?faith-based? (predominantly evangelical Christian, in practice) organizations while simultaneously weakening regulations, it hands over captive audiences to all-but-unregulated, government-funded ?Christian conversion? programs; both at home and abroad, as in Africa where services are a matter of life and death in the face of epidemics. And religious services can now take place in the same space where government aid is handed out, but not at the same time, and the new Bush regulations allow social services to dispense aid immediately before or after religious services. So? if you want the services/food/medicine you might want to come early/stay later for the prayer meeting/Jesus movie, just to make sure you get what you need. After all, it may be the only game in town/the village.

Does it work this way with every program? Probably not. The Times article mentions a prison program in Florida that ranges from Christian to Scientologist. But the problem is that David Kuo mentions in his book and I pointed out when I reviewed it, the deck is quite literally stacked in against that kind of pluralism. Consider the parable of the peer review panelist from Kuo?s book.

Someone mentioned that I used to work at the White House in the faith-based office. A woman piped up and said, ?Really? Wow, I was on the peer-review panel for the first Compassion Capital Fund.? I asked her how she liked it and she said it was fun. She talked about how the government employees gave them grant review instructions ? look at everything objectively against a discreet list of requirements and score accordingly. ?But,? she said with a giggle, ?when I saw one of those non-Christian groups in the set I was reviewing. I just stopped looking at them and gave them a zero.?

At first I laughed. A funny joke. Not so much. She was proud and giggling and didn?t get that there was a problem with that. I asked if she knew others who?d done the same. ?Oh sure, a lot of us did.? She must have seen my surprise. ?Was there a problem with that??

? This was a smart, accomplished Christian woman. She got it immediately. But what she had done comported with her understanding of what the faith initiative was supposed to do ? help Christian groups ? and with her faith. She wanted people to know Jesus.

And the Believer in Chief?

Ultimately, George Bush wanted souls. In a remarkable reference in a Los Angeles speech in March 2004, he discussed what faith-based groups would be able to do with more money. He passionately exclaimed, ?There?s more souls to be saved.? That was what ?faith-based? was about for him. It is why, when he talked about faith-based groups with no notes, he always talked about the power of those groups to change lives ?from the inside out.? It was his own story.

The problem goes back to what I said in that post and what PZ Myers basically said in his post on the Times article: this is exactly why the government should not be in the business of ?saving souls? or helping people to ?know Jesus,? or paying anyone to do so with tax-payer funds; because as far as many of practitioners of the three major faiths in this country are concerned there?s only one way to ?save souls.? Theirs.

So chances are that a program like, say this Buddhist prison program would probably get a ?zero? on its faith-based initiative application. And if it did somehow (accidentally) end up getting that good government God-grub, we would soon hear howls of protest from every fundamentalist organization that could get a spokesperson in front of a news camera or an intern to write a press release.

Lama Chuck Stanford started visiting a small group of Buddhist inmates in Kansas about six years ago. ?Then word got around that that I was doing this,? Mr. Stanford said, ?and I started getting calls from prison chaplains around here telling me they had Buddhist inmates interested in getting groups going.?

Now Mr. Stanford serves four prisons ? the Lansing Correctional Center, the U.S. Disciplinary Barracks in Leavenworth, and two state prisons in Missouri. He?s on the road two days a week, most days serving groups of about 10 men at each prison.

He is among a quietly growing number of Buddhist teachers working in U.S. prisons, tending to inmates who had been raised Buddhist or who discovered the ancient faith later, many while incarcerated. U.S. prisons are also offering meditation and yoga for their general populations.

The Prison Dharma Network in Boulder, Colo., leads yoga and meditation and also sends books and correspondence to inmates nationwide. The Buddhist Peace Fellowship in Berkeley, Calif., has meditation, yoga and journal-writing programs in several California prisons, and the National Buddhist Prison Sangha in Mount Tremper, N.Y., has been supporting prison inmates since 1984 with visits, letters and reading material.

Kate Crisp, executive director of the Prison Dharma Network in Boulder, teaches yoga, meditation and peacemaker classes at the Boulder County Jail.

Her organization also teaches classes on meditation at the Lookout Mountain Youth Services Center in Golden, Colo. The facility is Colorado?s only long-term maximum-security correctional facility for boys.

Lama? Meditation? Yoga? Peacemaker classes? Given that some people burst a gasket over a Muslim congressman taking the oath of office on the Koran and not the Bible, and the AFA even wants a law passed requiring House and Senate members to take their oaths on the Bible. This is a simple oath of office, folks. A few words that take a few minutes to say, during which the individual has the option not to wear on any book, and no one?s getting a check from the government (unless you count that it?s probably taking place in the Capitol, a government building, etc.).

Fortunately, the Prison Dharma Network is a non-profit, funded by charitable donations. But can you imagine the response if a some Lama got a check from the office of faith-based initiatives to teach meditation, yoga, and peacemaking classes? Hey, if word even gets out that these people are allowed to teach this stuff in our prisons even on their own dime, there?s probably going to be trouble. (Next think you know, they?ll want to run youth homes and do outreach to the military.)

That?s not the way the faith-based initiative is supposed to work. It?s not supposed to be pluralist in its approach, because the folks who set it up are not pluralist in their approach. And they are now deeply embedded in federal agencies, and their beliefs have quietly become policy through executive orders and obscure legislative passages passed by the Republican congress. That?s why the Democrats will face difficulty dismantling Bush?s faith-based federal government.

Bush promised his evangelical followers faith-based social services, which he called ?compassionate conservatism.? He went beyond that to give them a faith-based war, faith-based law enforcement, faith-based education, faith-based medicine, and faith-based science. He could deliver on his promises because he stocked the agencies handling all these problems, in large degree, with born-again Christians of his own variety. The evangelicals had complained for years that they were not able to affect policy because liberals left over from previous administrations were in all the health and education and social service bureaus, at the operational level. They had specific people they objected to, and they had specific people with whom to replace them, and Karl Rove helped them do just that.

It is common knowledge that the Republican White House and Congress let ?K Street? lobbyists have a say in the drafting of economic legislation, and on the personnel assigned to carry it out, in matters like oil production, pharmaceutical regulation, medical insurance, and corporate taxes. It is less known that for social services, evangelical organizations were given the same right to draft bills and install the officials who implement them. Karl Rove had cultivated the extensive network of religious right organizations, and they were consulted at every step of the way as the administration set up its policies on gays, AIDS, condoms, abstinence programs, creationism, and other matters that concerned the evangelicals. All the evangelicals? resentments under previous presidents, including Republicans like Reagan and the first Bush, were now being addressed.

Getting rid of them and the policies they?ve put in place will be difficult, even if Democrats have the political will to do so. It?s encouraging that two House Democrats want to investigate Bush?s faith-based initiative, based on much of what?s mentioned above. (They?d also like to eighty-six the measure requiring one-third of AIDS prevention education funding to go to overseas ?abstinence-only? programs.) It shouldn?t come as a surprise that one of them is Barbara Lee, the lone member of congress to oppose the sweeping war powers granted to Bush after 9/11 and to have the temerity to suggest that some debate might be in order first. My guess is that Lee?s latest courageous stand will probably earn her nearly as much antipathy as her last one, and a few more death threats too.

And there?s just as much chance that Lee and other Democrats like her will stand alone if they stand against tax-payer funded proselytizing in the form of the faith-based initiative. The chances that a Democratic party that just won an election by running moderate to conservative on social issues is going to jeopardize it?s new one-third share of the coveted white evangelical vote by assailing the one government institution those same voters actually approve of. There?s even less of a chance that Democratic party leadership is going to put its weight behind such an investigation between now and 2008, when Nancy Pelosi is urging Democrats to talk more in biblical terms.

It?s even less likely, given the last election, that a Democratic presidential candidate will make the end of faith-based initiative part of his or her agenda. Not with those entering the field already going out of their way to tout their own faith credentials. And with Obama as the all-but-announced front runner, who established is faith cred and started his evangelical outreach a while back, there?s not much chance that candidate or president Obama will even suggest ending faith-based initiatives as manifested under the Bush administration,or do more than slightly restructure it.

After all, Democrats will want to hold on to their share of the evangelical vote just like Republicans did, if it means keeping a margin of victory. And they?ll do what they have to, and avoid what they have to, to keep it.

That means that ?God, brought to you by your government? may well be a permanent fact of American life.

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