Saturday, May 12, 2007

"Faith-based" organizations join the 21st Century "Great Barbecue"

A front-page story in the New York Times caught my historian's attention
today. The story deals with earmarks for religious groups, that is,
churches, that are called "faith based" organizations as a way to avoid
reminding citizens of the separation of church and state principle of
the American revolution and the U.S. Constitution.

"Earmarks" are federal grants that don't have to go through the various
levels of review to show that they are valuable and necessary that
grants for research projects, specific building appropriations,
investigations, etc., must go through. Since 1989, over nine hundred
such grants to religious groups have been issued amounting to over three
hundred million dollars, not a huge amount by federal government
standards, but interestingly enough, over half were issued in the
election year of 2004, and the overwhelming majority in the Bush years.

Both Democrats and Republicans have participated in getting such
"earmarks" and some have apparently been for useful enterprises,
community centers, construction projects at religious schools, etc., but
the whole affair is yet another example of the "back to the future"
modus operandi of the Bush administration, that is, small political
payoffs to local supporters and friends whose activities keep the right
Republicans in power and make the big contributions from and payoffs
to the oil men, military contractors, and assorted corporate
conglomerates possible.

Where does history come in, besides the obvious and important violation
of separation of Church and State which all of the funded "faith based"
initiatives do.

The old progressive historian Vernon Louis Parrington called the post
Civil War period, which saw the rise of both the large corporations and
the political machines in the United States, the "Great Barbecue," a
time when government showered land grants and every imaginable public
benefit on corporations and political clubs and communities were
rewarded with pork barrel projects and jobs for their loyalty in
elections, a sort of trickle down world where the companies paid off the
political machines and the machines rewarded the local ward healers and
loyalist districts.

All sorts of reform legislation, from Civil Service reform to
restrictions on politically based appointments to various offices, to
general regulation of business and campaign funding have been enacted to
counter this system some although limited success.

As the federal government grew of course, lobbying grew in much the same
way that advertising agencies grew with the development of mass
production capitalism, but the real watershed for both "big spending"
and "big lobbying" took place in the 1980s, when Ronald Reagan launched
policies brought "God" into a "holy trinity" with the domestic
economic philosophy of Milton Friedman and the foreign policy world-view
of John Foster Dulles to escalate the cold war, triple the military
budget, quadruple the federal debt, and sharply reduce the number of
workers in unions. All of this in the name of eliminating "big government."

In short, a new and continuing late 20th century "great barbecue" that
both cut in religious groups and made the Vanderbilts and Goulds and
Boss Tweeds of the late 19th century look quaint.

There has been a literal explosion of lobbying and pork barrel
legislation since the 1980s (the number of registered Washington
lobbyists has grown spectacularly since Ronald Reagan became president,
promising to fight the "special interests" and balance the budget while
cutting taxes and increasing military spending--policies that the man he
chose to be Vice President, George Bush I, had in 1980 called Voodoo

Although voodoo is a religion or a "faith based" belief system also, I
doubt that Voodoo groups have received "earmarks" or even have the
major lobbyists that the religious groups, the Times story shows, who
have and continue to receive "earmarks" for multi-million dollar
projects, employ.

In my experience as a political activist engaged in campaigning against
first Ronald Reagan and then his Republican successors since the early
1980s, the political shock troops for the Republican Right, even in a
pro labor liberal state like New Jersey, have been members of
conservative evangelical churches often organized by their pastors to
work for Republican campaigns. Many of these churches function, in my
opinion, as de facto political clubs for the Republican party. Now some
of them at least are sharing directly in the political patronage that
everyone, but conservatives particularly, have denigrated since the late
19th century as "special interest" and "pork barrel" legislation.

I have not written this blog article to beat up on religious believers.
Many are more progressive in their attitudes than secular people and
many belong to groups that are doing good work. But their work is not a
substitute for public social welfare policies that protect all
Americans. And those who function as de facto political clubs for the
Republican party and receive rewards for their work deserve to have
their tax exempt status and other benefits put under serious scrutiny.

Conservative religionists like to say that the leaders of the American
revolution didn't want to take religion out of politics and make it a
private matter when that is exactly what they wanted to do. They were
both revolutionaries and products of the "enlightenment" or "age of
reason." Whatever their private religious beliefs and associations
were, and they were as varied as the Protestant Christian groups from
which virtually all of them had come, they knew what the alliance of the
British monarchical empire and the Church of England that they were
rebelling against had represented in terms of a repressive power
structure that stood in the way of progress.

While religious groups in many of the new states continued to receive
various forms of funding and support, the principle of separation of
church and state in law and in policy grew with the principles of
democracy itself in the 19th century.

The sort of religious politics, both ideological and in terms of
"earmarks" patronage based, are yet another example of the right-wing
Republican undermining of democracy.

--Norman Markowitz

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