Man Can’t Live On Faith Alone

By Leonard Fein

Published January 23, 2004, issue of January 23, 2004.
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No doubt about it, the sight of the Grand Canyon is awe-inspiring. Those so inclined are sure to wonder, as they look out at it, at God’s marvels. But these days, our government does not leave the response to our inclination; it tells us what to feel. Right there on a bronze plaque mounted on the viewing platform at the canyon’s South Rim are not only words from Psalm 104, but also an unattributed ditty of praise to “Father Almighty, wonderful Lord.” And if there’s any doubt regarding the government’s intention, why just pick up at the park bookstore a copy of “Grand Canyon: A Different View,” wherein it is explained that the canyon can at most be a few thousand years old since that’s how long it’s been since Earth was created.

The president himself addressed related matters just last week in a speech delivered at the Union Bethel A.M.E. church in New Orleans. Bush’s subject on January 14 was faith-based initiatives. Predictably, he called for a far more relaxed attitude on the part of the federal government when it comes to the funding of faith-based social programs. There’s no need to summarize what he said, or to paraphrase it; here are his own words: “Problems that face our society are oftentimes problems that require something greater than just a government program or a government counselor to solve. Intractable problems, problems that seem impossible to solve, can be solved. There is the miracle of salvation in our — that is real, that is tangible, that is available for all to see. Miracles are possible in our society, one person at a time.”

He goes on: “But it requires a willingness to understand the origin of miracle. Miracles happen as a result of the love of the Almighty, professed, by the way, taught, by the way, by religions from all walks of life, whether it be Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu — people who have heard that universal call to love a neighbor just like you’d like to be loved yourself, and then surround someone who hurts with love. Love is powerful. Love is soul-changing. Love doesn’t happen because of government; love happens because of the inspiration of something greater than government.”

So much for church-state separation. (And just wait until the new $1.5 billion the president wants to “promote marriage” ends up being allocated to faith-based programs.) But there is something else revealed here, something quite as ominous. Salvation’s a good thing, no doubt, and we ought to have real respect for people who reach out to their neighbors with love, with a sense of responsibility. But “one person at a time” is hardly a substitute for public policy; it does not and cannot meet the unmet needs of millions of people in this bountiful land.

That in itself is not an argument against faith-based programs. As an adjunct to vigorous governmental programs, they can be very valuable, and their advocates have a strong case to make as the debate regarding the church-state issue goes forward. But as to the president, that’s apparently not his concern, as his words in the very next paragraph indicate: “Right here in this church, there are faith-based programs. Any program emanating out of a church or a synagogue or a mosque is a faith-based program. So here — people talk about faith-based programs; those are programs that start as a result of a group of folks of faith deciding to do something about a problem. And the fundamental question in our society is, how does the federal government relate to programs of faith? ‘The mighty check writer’ — how does it relate when it writes checks to meet social needs with people who are solving our problems, in spite of government? My attitude is, the government should not fear faith-based programs. We ought to welcome faith-based programs, and we ought to fund faith-based programs.”

Did you catch it? The people who are “solving our problems” are doing so “in spite of government.”

There’s the heart of the matter. Just the other day, Congressman Barney Frank spoke at a luncheon for Harvard University’s Jewish faculty. It’s a losing proposition to try to paraphrase Barney Frank, but here, roughly, is what he said: The capitalist system, left to itself, not only allows for inequality; it promotes inequality. As we’ve understood the role of government these last many decades, it comes to repair the inherent excesses of the free market, to make the inequality a bit less punishing.

That’s not the view of this president, nor of the Republican party, not anymore. Truth to tell, it’s even hard to discern that view among the Democrats, so lemming-like have they gathered under “the era of big government is over” banner. But at least the Democrats understand that we cannot await miracles, we cannot be satisfied with retail salvation. Housing programs and food stamp programs and subsidized meals for children who will otherwise be left behind (the president’s pronouncements notwithstanding), must serve the needs, quite literally, of millions, and it simply will not do to pretend otherwise. The president has his bully pulpit, but he is supposed to be more than our national preacher, counseling love and calling for miracles.

But there you — we — have it. The president wants to us to hug each other. But justice? The answer’s not in heaven; the road to justice — and mercy, too — leads to the halls of government, even unto the Oval Office.

Leonard Fein’s most recent book is “Against the Dying of the Light: A Father’s Story of Love, Loss, and Hope” (Jewish Lights, 2001).

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