In God We Trust


George W. Bush's initiative to give federal money to faith-based organizations has drawn criticism in many tongues. Progressives are concerned about the separation of churches from a state that may play religious favorites; left-leaning churchmen are worried that Washington will muffle their calls for social justice; libertarians predict that charity's voluntary essence will be undermined by federal pottage.

Given that the history of religion as a politicized force can be encompassed under these same problematic headings of state establishment, censorship, and corruption, it's plainly a good idea to pay heed to such latter-day Jeremiahs. To join faith to taxes more intimately than is now the case is to matchmake a marriage you wouldn't want next door.

In fact, we already have such a noisy union to deal with. What conservatives want to do to religious altruism, a matter of fundamental meaning to them, is not unlike what liberals have already done to one of their own favorite enterprises: culture-making. Yet the liberal project of joining state largess to culture has hardly been a success. It has proved baneful, but not because of any predictable issues of federal power. The state has not attempted to impose its taste on the populace, or necessarily tried to subvert or censor anyone (though some cases may be arguable). Given the small amounts of money involved, it hasn't even overtaxed anyone on culture's behalf. Rather, the effect of joining culture and taxes has been to distort culture's social role, and ultimately to belittle its stature.

Why has the state proved such a lousy arts patron? Because it suffers the liberal democratic delusion that it can do good while avoiding risk. Champions of state support for culture understand the arts as an ennobling, uplifting enterprise. Assemble persons of appropriate taste to parcel out tax money to deserving creators, they argue, and the general result will be a benefit to all. Art, in other words, is good for us.

In fact, much state support for the arts is not especially controversial. But some is, and that's where all the public attention is directed. Urinate on stage under an arts grant, use tax money to hang photographs of gentlemen with bullwhips in their anuses, or display likenesses of sacred figures fashioned from elephant shit, and you are likely to make the papers, offend people whose money you are using, and get the attention of opportunistic politicians.

As a result, the art world has become best known for its most risky, most cynical, or most marginal work, because that is the source of all the shouting over public support. Enlightenment thus gives way to contempt; patronage becomes timid as cultural bureaucrats seek to avoid headaches; the safe and the mediocre thrive. If anyone set out to undermine the culture-making enterprise, they could hardly have come up with a better system than to join art financially to a republic whose cultural role is otherwise limited to a guarantee of free speech.

The state is no better prepared to act as religious benefactor than it has been to act as cultural patron, and for the same liberal democratic delusion. Champions of federal support for faith-based organizations understand the effort as an enterprise that succeeds in doing good, often where secular efforts fail.

But just as art is not necessarily about enlightenment, faith is not necessarily about good works. Faith is about saving souls, about winning men and women to an ineffable truth, to say nothing of subverting the heretical competition, much less filling the offering basket. Moreover, if the art world is dense with poseurs, provocateurs, and cynics, the world of religion is even denser. The dynamics that lead from controversy to nervous philanthropy are already in place. If conservatives seek to distort and belittle the social role of religious altruism, then opening the federal treasury to churches is a promising beginning.

In making his congregational proposal in January, Bush surrounded himself with numerous religious leaders whom he said were doing fine civic work on a voluntary basis. No doubt he was right about these figures, no doubt there are many more like them, and no doubt that volunteerism is a more efficacious approach to social problems than welfare statism. The president should sign a personal check in support of his favored church charities, and encourage the citizenry to follow his example voluntarily. Placing taxes in pursuit of souls, as he is doing, is a favor neither to those taxed, nor necessarily to those saved.