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Jul 29, 2007 7:50 pm

Religious Liberty and the Bush Administration

[Prof. Reeves is a Senior Fellow of the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute. Among his dozen books are biographies of John F. Kennedy, Joseph R. McCarthy, Fulton J. Sheen, and Chester A. Arthur. Marquette University Press published his biography of Wisconsin Governor Walter J. Kohler, Jr. in 2006.]

This year marks the sixtieth anniversary of a United States Supreme Court case on religious freedom that helped change the course of American history. In Everson v. Board of Education, a majority opinion written by Justice Hugo Black claimed that the “First Amendment has erected a wall between church and state. That wall must be kept high and impregnable. We could not approve the slightest breach.” The “wall” metaphor was first used by Thomas Jefferson in a private letter of 1802 and had nothing to do with the Constitution. Moreover, as Philip Hamburger and other scholars have noted, the 1947 decision clearly revealed an anti-Catholic bias within the Court. Still, the Everson decision was later cited in efforts to destroy the public association of the United States with Christianity, abundantly present since the country’s founding. Today it still serves as a foundation for the drive by secularists and atheists to drive out all signs and symbols of the faith from tax-supported organizations and buildings.

George W. Bush, a Christian evangelical who was elected with the strong support of conservative Christians, chose to reverse the course of recent government actions. Early in his presidency, Bush issued an executive order creating the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, designed to ensure that religious groups were eligible to compete for federal funds. No longer would faith-based community groups be automatically ruled ineligible. The order declared, “The paramount goal is compassionate results, and private and charitable community groups, including religious ones, should have the fullest opportunity permitted by law to compete on a level playing field, so long as they achieve valid public purposes, such as curbing crime, conquering addiction, strengthening families and neighborhoods, and overcoming poverty. This delivery of social services must be results oriented and should value the bedrock principles of pluralism, nondiscrimination, evenhandedness, and neutrality.”

The results have been impressive. A report on activities in 2006 shows the program active in promoting almost every sort of charitable activity. And since 2002, it has trained tens of thousands of people in the art of seeking more federal funds to accelerate the work. (See

Libertarians, of course, were not at all pleased by the President’s faith-based initiatives. Bush and his “compassionate conservatism” seemed to be leading the GOP into waters dominated by the Left. But elements of the Left were even more unhappy about the President’s action, especially those that detested Christianity. The Freedom from Religion Foundation, led by militant, 80-year-old Ann Gaylor, went to court, claiming that the Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives violated the separation of church and state by spending tax dollars on conferences and speeches that had the effect of promoting religious groups over secular ones.

In late June, the United States Supreme Court ruled 5-4 against Gaylor, stating that her foundation lacked the legal standing to challenge the federal expenditures. The split on the Court was predictable; the conservatives and Anthony Kennedy versus the four leftists.

Gaylor said that the ruling left her “horrified,” and she blamed it on the fact that all five of the majority members in the case were Catholics. She angrily labeled the nation’s top legal body an “ecclesiastical court.” A statement on the Freedom From Religion website repeated the attack on Court Catholics and complained about the “imperial Presidency.” Barry Lynn of Americans United for Separation of Church and State took comfort in the fact that lawsuits challenging congressional appropriations of this sort were still legal in most instances.

President Bush, on the other hand, called the decision a “substantial victory for efforts by Americans to more effectively aid our neighbors in need of help.” The conservative American Center for Law and Justice applauded the ruling, saying that it “sends a powerful message that atheists and others antagonistic to religion do not get an automatic pass to bring Establishment Clause lawsuits.”

And so goes the Culture War in 2007.

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Steven Wiener - 7/31/2007

I strongly disagree that the faith-based program of the Bush Administration has been successful.
Contrary to Bush's own speech--
"This delivery of social services must be results oriented and should value the bedrock principles of pluralism, nondiscrimination, evenhandedness, and neutrality.”--this program promotes descrimination in hiring and serviced clients; highly descriminates against non-fundamentalist Christian agencies (How many Muslim and Buddhist charities have received federal funding?); and is a flagrant attempt to transfer the secular government's responsibility "to promote the general welfare" to religious (mainly Christian) institutions.
The true record of the success of many of the faith-based agencies is suspect. The GOA (also underfunded) has not done complete audits of the program.
I also object to Professor Reeves' description of the four Supreme Court Justices who voted against the faith-base program as "leftists." Justice Stevens is probably the only "true liberal." The other three are moderates; but the Court has steered so far to the right that the merely seem liberal in SOME cases.
Lastly, if the Supreme Court is now predominantly Catholic (or pro-Catholic / near-convert in Thomas's case) and consistently ruling in compliance to the Vatican and to Bush, then they comprise a judicial theocracy. The best example is Justice Kennedy's use of non-medical terminology in his anti-abortion majority decision.
The vast majority of private schools are parochial; the vast majority of those are Catholic. So, what church stands to win the most with private school vouchers with 5 Catholic supreme court justices making the final blessing?
I firmly oppose spending ANY tax money on ANY religious institution for ANY purpose. By making further cracks in the wall of separation, the wall will come tumbling down.
As Pacifica Radio host Ian Masters eloquently says, "It's difficult to fight a war on fundamentalism abroad while supporting it here."
--Steve Wiener
B.A., History, UCLA
Vista, California

William J. Stepp - 7/30/2007

There is no better way to corrupt faith-based organizations than to allow them into the public trough.
As Finke, Starke, and others have shown, the history of Christianity demonstrates that state churches grow more slowly and are more corrupt than churches that don't allow their mission to be swayed by tax money.