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NOT MUCH FAITH IN GOVERNMENT

There is a story that Brazilian director Augusto Boal, an advocate of political theater, likes to tell about a class he once taught on the history of drama.

Boal had explained to the students that when one person stood up on stage and spoke out loud, it was called a monologue. What then, he asked the class, was a dialogue? This question seemed to stump them until one student finally blurted: "Two monologues!"

I think of this in the heated aftermath of the Bush proposal to channel federal dollars to faith-based programs for social ills. My own wary, tentative approval brought forth an enormous reader reaction. But the responses read less like the dialogue in a national conversation than a series of monologues.

The issue of church, state, Bush and faith-based funding has become political theater. Some of the passion comes from diametrically opposite ideas of religion and history.

On one side is the benign view offered by an Idaho woman: "For millenniums, religious groups have proven to be extremely benevolent without expectations of reward, from mankind anyway." On the other side, the scathing view of an Ithaca woman, "Faith has led to the murder of hundreds of thousands, probably millions, of people who belong to "the wrong faith.' "

Many hard (and soft) feelings were rooted in personal as well as political history. Some readers have searing memories of discrimination, and others, like the Florida public school teacher, have experienced religious zeal as harassment, "but at least my taxes did not fund them."

For every reader who wrote of gratitude for a religious helping hand, another wrote like the Yahoo correspondent: "Should I ever find myself homeless . . . I will not want to sacrifice my own personal beliefs in a "trade-off' for help."

Indeed, two of the most dramatic and opposite stories came from mothers whose sons were drug addicts. One said her son "admits that the Bible and God's word were what transformed his life . . . when everything else had failed to bring any lasting change." The other said her son was "completely flummoxed" by a religious rehab program and "didn't turn his life around until he realized that he alone had the will to do it without divine intervention."

It wasn't just experiences that led them to differ passionately, but also reasoning. I listed a dozen "reasons to be nervous" at government funding for the social programs of religious groups. Readers added a dozen more.

Predictably, many feared that government-supported religion would intrude on a secular society. A retired military man from Tacoma, Wash., quoted Cotton Mather of all people, "Never give a person more power than he can use, for use it he will."

But less predictable were the worries - even from self-described right-wing Christians - that government would intrude on religion. "Many, if not most people of my persuasion are very fearful of government intrusion," wrote a Kentucky man. A Houston reader added, "I am not merely flogging the First Amendment when I say that government is probably worse for religion than religion is for government."

Scanning through the monologues of this church-state drama, the remarkable part is what they have in common. Those who welcome the Bush plan hope that faith-based programs will bring religion to those in need. Those who worry assume it would impose one religion on others.

Few seemed to entertain the possibility that this new office can do what the president said: separate the soup from the sermon, fund religious groups to do secular good.

Before I close the mailbag, let me offer the benediction of one reader, a New Yorker with a Christian organization that provides equipment for hospitals overseas: "Let us pray (or not), to whomever or whatever, that lives will experience a positive transformation through this fledgling program."

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