Faith-Based Defunding of the Public Sector
Published in the May/June 2001 issue of Tikkun
Faith-Based Defunding of the Public Sector
by Michael Lerner
The central political agenda of America's conservative forces is to protect corporate power. Having witnessed how social reform movements were able to use democratic processes to put constraints on the worst aspects of the competitive marketplace, conservatives have sought to delegitimate the public arena itself. By generating cynicism about politics, they hope to convince people that any valuable social goals ought to be achieved outside the realm of government.

Faith-based funding could be a fig leaf for a strategy of abandoning the most needy. If so, religious people should not be part of that.

President Bush's faith-based initiative is a smart extension of the conservative assault on democratic politics. On the one hand, Bush's tax plan reduces the funds that are available for any social concerns. Forget about providing health care, building housing for the homeless, eliminating world hunger, or providing funds for our society's transition from fossil fuel to other less environmentally dangerous sources of energy.

On the other hand, Bush suggests giving new funds to faith-based organizations, so that they may deliver social services to our communities. As the funding levels decrease, Bush will be able to say, "Well, people should step in and create more of these local projects—and pay for them out of voluntary giving." By shifting the burden to private institutions, the government will no longer be asked to provide essential human services—except police, army, and taxation. It is a very clever way to defund the public sector under the guise of involving religious communities. And Bush's plan deepens the societal conviction that we can't trust government to do anything important (and hence should not allow it to meddle with the "rights" of corporate polluters, tobacco companies, or other socially irresponsible activities of America's elites).

Bush could never get away with this initiative if the liberal and progressive view of government had not been so one-dimensional in its understanding of human needs. Government ought to be the vehicle through which we each manifest our caring for others—a proxy which we create to do some of the caring and protecting that we don't have time or social power to do on our own. But the liberal/progressive world, stuck in a conception of human beings as primarily driven by material needs ("it's the economy, stupid"), created a government which delivered money (a kind of "objective caring") and did so in a way that made people feel that some out-of-control bureaucracy—a bureaucracy that didn't care one whit for them and often disrespected them—was doing them some big favor by giving them back some of the money they paid in taxes. In short, liberals didn't pay attention to what it felt like to be recipients of government services and didn't show any "subjective caring." No one in government was rewarded (and some were even penalized) for taking time to show the recipients of government services that ordinary citizens were important. Government should have been a vehicle to show that we all care about each other's needs.

I personally experienced this arrogance this past year when I had to get a building permit for some minor changes in my house, changes my neighbors did not oppose and which only affected me. I was treated as though I were seeking a special favor. The process of securing city and county approval for these minor changes dragged on for over fifteen months, and at each point along the way the government officials I met were disrespectful, uncooperative, and threatening ("maybe we should send some inspectors out there—we'll probably find code violations that you never dreamt about"). I was told over and over by contractors that the key to success was to try to find one sympathetic person in the bureaucracy, play to their ego, win them over, and then urge them to become my protector. Now, I was doing nothing illegal, environmentally destructive, or mercenary; I was merely making some minor changes in my house. Well, no wonder that others respond to these kinds of experiences by cheering on Bush's efforts to defund government and send the money back to those who pay taxes!

Imagine, instead, if Bill and Hillary Clinton had actually listened to Tikkun when we raised these issues to them, and had recognized that human beings have spiritual needs, meaning needs, and needs for recognition and respect. A politics of meaning approach would encourage government employees to communicate to the public a sense that the government was operating as a vehicle for each of us to express our caring toward all the rest of us. Institutions would be seen as productive and efficient to the extent that they fostered love and caring, ethical/spiritual/ecological consciousness, and awe and wonder at the grandeur of the universe. If that were the goal of government institutions, people would feel very differently about them, and would not be so open to defunding the public sector.

But Bill and Hillary chose instead to build a materialistic and "objective" public sphere, with the result that many people now say, "Fine, you can have that public sphere lacking in any sense of the spiritual dimension of life, but we will give our money to fund activities that we really care about through institutions that are not in the public sphere at all, so we can get back to talking about love and Spirit."

And that's exactly what has happened. Nor is this choice irrational. Look at the powerful success of AA as compared to government programs dealing with alcoholism. It turns out that when you address God or a Higher Power, the meaning of your own life, and other spiritual issues, you can be more effective in dealing with a wide variety of social problems than when you are constricted by the narrow conceptions of human needs that are sufficiently parve (neutral) to be discussed in public institutions. No wonder, then, that First Amendment arguments against Bush's faith-based funding have fallen flat on their nose: separation of church and state all too often seems to mean "let's ignore the ethical and spiritual dimension of human needs."

The terrible side of all this is that Bush's strategy actually might work to further erode public support for government, thereby giving a free pass to corporate social and economic irresponsibility. Nothing will change this until progressives are willing to publicly acknowledge the limitations of their narrow conception of government and publicly embrace a politics of meaning. Till then, the Left has given the Right a free ride to dismantle many of the accomplishments of social change movements of the twentieth century.

So far, it has been the Right in the religious world that has sounded the alarm against Bush's initiative, on the quite legitimate ground that they might be forced to repress their advocacy for their own religious perspective in order to acquire government funding. A more pressing objection should be raised by the religious Left: faith-based funding is a fig leaf for a strategy of abandoning the most needy, and religious people should not be part of that.

© 2001 Tikkun Magazine