When Church Becomes State


When you’re in the Peace
Corps, you expect culture shock. But it’s generally not supposed to come from
your countrymen. Among many foreign experiences I had in Honduras a decade ago,
interpreting for a brigade of fundamentalist Christian doctors was perhaps the
most disturbing.

They set up their operations
in our dance hall, triage at the entrance and stations of doctors inside. They
brought enough free medicine to put Pfizer on notice and dispensed it
generously to the hordes who had walked up to four hours seeking a few moments
of attention to make up for a lifetime without medical care. This, of course,
seemed a right and noble thing.

But then I noticed that, in
addition to the expected diagnostic questions, the Spanish-speakers manning
triage kept asking “Es Ud. evangelico o catolico?” Tragically, only the first
answer got you into the queue. While I quickly rushed out to let my neighbors
know that they were all evangelicals for the day, I was horrified that these
good samaritans deemed this an acceptable way to ration their aid. Here was
public assistance with strings attached; 
a foreshadowing of when church becomes state. This may have happened far
away in a “banana republic”, but our Banana Republicans seem determined to bring
this home to stay.

Weeks ago, readers of this
site were rightly fuming when Congress threw another $50 million down the
abstinence-only wishing well. Right-wing intentions to police sexuality by
restricting abortion, blocking access to birth control and opposing marriage
equality are well known. Equally clear are their desires to eviscerate social
assistance, visible through efforts to block a public option for health care,
privatize education by making public schools undesirable and cut assistance to
people in need.

Much ink has been spilled and
many explanations offered for why the right seems determined to demand
government interference in matters of sexuality and so eager to block
government involvement in matters of welfare. They care a lot about who we’re
sleeping with but it’s on us to afford buying a bed.

This seeming contradiction has
been characterized, effectively in my view, as stemming from beliefs about the
very nature of the relationship between citizen and state.  It is a relationship that can be and
indeed is often likened to that of a parent and child. If you believe that the
parental (read: governmental) role is to enforce a worldview of adherence to
authority, individualism and self-reliance, these inconsistencies — and let’s
face it the corresponding ones we hold dear on the left — make a bit more
sense.

But what if, while true, this
explanation is just part of the tale?

What seem like two
contradictory missions, one for government intrusion and the other against
government involvement may actually prove one coherent and effective strategy.
By eliminating (or at least drastically crippling) government assistance,
proponents of conservative ideology force the public to turn to the most likely
remaining source of aid: the church. Houses of worship have always been an
incredible haven for those in dire need — but now in too many communities they
are the only refuge.

Current conditions,
especially as state governments are ripping more seams in our threadbare social
safety net, mean a continuation of this trend. When public schools are too
horrible to consider, people enroll their children in the cheapest private
option: parochial schools. When food stamps, WIC and the like dry up, people
turn to food pantries almost always operated by religious institutions.

And as they spend more
time in certain kinds of churches and, perhaps eventually as a requirement to
receive this aid, they will absorb and then transmit the moral beliefs of the
religious right. When free clinics and non-profit health services can no longer
pay their rent or their staff — will churches become the provider of last
resort? We may find ourselves in triage struggling to assert religious beliefs
we don’t hold or at least aren’t interested in offering up as a pre-condition
for assistance. Some day soon it may not only become even harder to get an
abortion, you may need to declare your opposition to it just to get
bread. 

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  • faultroy

    First of all I want to sincerely thank you for your wonderful and generous commitment of both time and personal energy in your service to humanity. The idea of doctors only servicing "Christians," requires far more details than you have described. From my experience, doctors will tend to the needs of even mass murders.  As far as these charges that you make against right wingers, some of it may be true, but you go too far in labeling all conservatives as "right wingers." This is tantamount to saying: "All Black Americans Are Lazy and Shiftless." At best this is racist, at worst it says more about the person commenting than anything I can say. It is no different in your comments about "restricting abortions," "Blocking access to birth Control," and " opposing marriage." and implying that all conservatives are "right wingers." We both know that is not true. Perhaps you should ponder why there is such a focus on "right wingers," when everyone that has even a cursory knowledge and understanding of politics realizes that if you look at our last election, the numbers were pretty closly divided between liberals and conservatives. What put Obama into office was not left wing democrats, nor did "right wingers" put him in jeopardy of keeping him out of office. What got Obama elected was the power of the independent vote. That person willing to look at things in a reasonable and responsible manner and noting the validity of both sides of the argument. When you make such over generalized comments, you not only impugn all conservatives, but you also greatly diminish your own credibility–and as a consequence undermine your advocacy. There are very valid reasons for not ascribing to gay marriage and very few of them have anything to do with bias and hatred of gays nor the desire to discriminate. You may not agree with them, but they are there nevertheless. We live in a democracy that means the will of the majority rules. If the overwelming majority decides to change the Constitution, it will be changed…there is nothing you and I can do about it. If the majority decides to kill all gays (heaven forbid) as repulsive and disgusting as this idea is, they will all die. We have seen this kind of sick populism time after time in the history of the world. And as far as your confusion as to why "right wingers," demand government intrusion in matters of sexuality, and yet block government intrusion on welfare, that is very simple. One is about core beliefs, the other is about money–conservatives’ money. Our grandparents and parents would be appalled by the wanton expenditures that we have made over the past decade. We have squandered the birthright of our children and granchildren. Government continues to grow on a Federal Level while the rights of individual states are consistently repressed. We now spend more than $12,000 per month minimum to educate a child, but the best we can do (according to the year 2000 census) is to have only 58 percent of our children graduate highschool within four years. Every year we spend about 1 Trillion Dollars but we are told we need to spend more–but now one can tell us how and where to spend it nor even give us guarantees of productivity.  We are told we are wholly and solely responsible for the welfare of our children, but we have the Feds, the States and the Doctors and Lawyers and all the Guidance Counselors and psychotherapists telling us how raise our children. And, if we do not raise them according to their "expert guidance," we risk the real possibility of loosing the most precious assets we have (our children)–and which our constitution specifically states "is one of the most fundamental rights of all men and women." After all the billions we have spent on abortions, we still cannot agree on the fact that abortions are a vulgar and abhorent activity–though most everyone agrees that in certain cases it must be justified. When public schools start addressing the needs of the community that both pays for the service and should decide what and how it should be taught–without the Federal government dictating terms, than conservatives will start supporting public schools–after all, it is their money, their community and their children. Who are you or I to tell them what and how to do it? When it is your money, I think that we should do it your way. When it is my money, I think I should be the one to make the decision. And when it is someone else’s money I think I should do it their way. After all, that is the way it works in business. If you are providing a service, then you should tailor that service to the needs and wants and desires of your customer. Well, quite frankly that is what most conservatives want. As far as Abstinence Only is concerned, we tried sexual education, and it turned our children into the most precociously sexual generation in the history of the USA. I personally think a parent that spends a lifetime raising a child, nuturing a child and providing financial, medical, cultural and emotional sustenance should be able to decide what is in the child’s best interest. If a parent feels it is in the child’s best interest to learn about creation because it is their personal beliefs–which is again guaranteed in the US Constitution, then they should do so. Whether I agree with it or not, it really is none of my business. If you are a parent and you want your children to deify little green men from Mars, as long as you pay for the upbringing of your kids and take personal responsibility for their welfare, then I think it is your given right to do so. If you spent a little more time listening to the other side, perhaps you may find that they will spend a little more time listening to your perspective as well.

  • anat-shenkerosorio

    Dear Faultroy,

     

    Thank you for the obvious time you took in reading and responding to my posting. I come from a long-line of medical professionals. My father is a practicing physician, my grandmother was a nurse and my great-grandmother boasts the distinction of being the first woman to graduate from dental school in Russia. Having seen first hand how they and other doctors for whom I’ve interpreted care for their patients, I need no convincing of the lengths medical professionals will go to heal the sick. Sadly, what I describe at the beginning of this piece is a literal, first-person account. I relate it not to paint the entire profession with broad strokes, but rather to demonstrate what can happen when religious beliefs entangle too closely with professional service.

    As far as the rest of the issues you raise, I’m afraid I would need several separate articles to do them justice. For the sake of brevity, I will limit myself to acknowledging there is a vast spectrum of beliefs and tactics in the conservative movement. However, for some time an incredibly right-leaning, non-representative, faction of this movement has held disproportionate ideological sway. It is this phenomenon, and the corollary cultural shifts it makes seem logical that scares me.

    And, for the record, I do not believe there are any valid reasons to deny loving couples a right that is theirs inherently — to pledge publicly a lifelong commitment to each other sanctioned by their community, however they elect to define it. Anything short of this harms not just them but that same community. When everyone is better off, than everyone is better off.

     

    Anat

  • emma

    if you look at our last election, the numbers were pretty closly divided between liberals and conservatives. What put Obama into office was not left wing democrats, nor did "right wingers" put him in jeopardy of keeping him out of office. What got Obama elected was the power of the independent vote. That person willing to look at things in a reasonable and responsible manner and noting the validity of both sides of the argument.

    Bear in mind here that he knew the left – his base, for god’s sake – had nowhere else to go. If that hadn’t been the case, the left base would have found an ideologically more agreeable candidate/party. You’re taking the left for granted here, just as Obama does.

    We live in a democracy that means the will of the majority rules. If the overwelming majority decides to change the Constitution, it will be changed…there is nothing you and I can do about it. If the majority decides to kill all gays (heaven forbid) as repulsive and disgusting as this idea is, they will all die.

    If the United States were a simple majoritarian/populist democracy, then your argument would have some validity. The US is, roughly, a liberal democracy, a system in which individual rights hold primacy. Haven’t you heard the expression ‘the tyranny of the majority’? Liberal democracies have institutions built into them to protect minorities from majorities; an example would be the judicial system, and its process of judicial review.

     

    You do understand that many people use ‘right wing’ and ‘conservative’ synonymously, yeah? Centrists are also called ‘liberals'; socialists, anarchists and communists are also known as left wingers? The political spectrum, and all of that.

     

    Can’t finish this now; have taken Ambien and am about to crash…will return tomorrow if appropriate and if I have a chance.
    Oh, and faultyroy, children are not possessions.

     

    Might add quickly though – faultyroy, your comment would have made my eyes bleed a lot less if you’d broken it up into paragraphs. That’d save all of us from staring at a wall of text.

  • crowepps

    If you are providing a service, then you should tailor that service to the needs and wants and desires of your customer. Well, quite frankly that is what most conservatives want.

    But conservatives are not the only ‘customers’ out there. Conservatives are not a majority, and extreme conservatives are a small minority. If most parents want comprehensive sex education including information about birth control, which is what the polls show, then they are the ‘customer’ and by your logic should get what they want. Most parents do NOT support abstinence only education and most citizens don’t support it either.

    Fifteen percent of Americans believe that schools should teach only about abstinence from sexual intercourse and should not provide information on how to obtain and use condoms and other contraception. A plurality (46 percent) believes that the most appropriate approach is one that might be called “abstinence-plus” — that while abstinence is best, some teens do not abstain, so schools also should teach about condoms and contraception. Thirty-six percent believe that abstinence is not the most important thing, and that sex ed should focus on teaching teens how to make responsible decisions about sex.
    http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=1622610

    Independent voters register as independent because they are liberal on some issues and conservative on other issues. The increasing size of the population who so designate themselves is a pretty clear indication that neither of the ‘traditional’ parties is meeting their needs. A lot of people feel BOTH Republicans and Democrats spend too much time on less important side issues, tend to cater to much to their extremist wings, and BOTH tend to ignore the issues the general population actually is concerned about. Social issues like abortion and same sex marriage are the top priority for only a tiny minority of the country, approximately 2% to 3%.
    http://www.pollingreport.com/prioriti.htm

  • ack

    There are very valid reasons for not ascribing to gay marriage and very few of them have anything to do with bias and hatred of gays nor the desire to discriminate. You may not agree with them, but they are there nevertheless.>>

     

    Please explain. Every "argument" I’ve heard against same-sex marriage is rooted in prejudice and discrimination.

  • anat-shenkerosorio

    Crowepps,

     Thanks for adding this important information to the debate. Your statistics on parental attitudes on abstinence-only (I deliberately refuse to call it education, since it’s not imparting wisdom but rather withholding information and/or spreading falsehoods) should be quite heartening. But the truth, as the rest of your comments imply, are that despite this public approval for comprehensive sexuality education, too many districts are substituting scare tactics about an essential and potentially joyous aspect of human experience. The proof of the pudding is in the payment, and it’s no small matter when Congress appropriates funds for something in the current economic climate.

    Anat 

  • crowepps

    The problem is that all too often the school board buckles under to a ‘save our children’ campaign organized and funded by a tiny bunch of whackaloons who don’t even have children in the schools, but who are OUTRAGED by the idea that parents who are strangers to them are cooperating in allowing teachers who are strangers to them to tell children who are strangers to them the actual truth, and who haul out the posters and dig up some ultra-conservative priest or fringe religious leader and make lots of media noise purporting to ‘prove’ that the school board is encouraging ‘perversion’ and should all be burnt at the stake. There is a very deep vein of Puritanism and prudery in the American character which tends to give undue influence to any publicity-seeking nutjobs who are shocked, SHOCKED that someone somewhere might possibly have had or be having now or potentially think about having pleasure in the future, and who are obsessed with making everyone as miserable as they are themselves.

  • anat-shenkerosorio

    You’re definitely preaching to the converted here, as you’ve no doubt guessed. But I would add that those of us fighting for the rights of children to learn about health, life, fulfillment, relationships and everything else woven into sexuality education, haven’t always done the greatest job advocating for our cause. We too often rely on language that casts sexuality as threatening, using words like "arm students with information" "keep safe" "risks" "harms" "consequences" and so forth. See Lorraine Kenny’s brilliant piece on this site for more details. Sex ed in this framework is the lesser of two evils, useful to avoid truly bad outcomes like pregnancy and STIs but not a good onto itself. We generally teach sex ed alongside drug and alcohol issues. Grouping these topics together further suggests sex is something addictive, problematic and dangerous rather than a continuum of developmentally appropriate experiences that promote self-awareness, connection, growth and eventually (at times) family. 

    Anat

  • crowepps

    I am aware that some religious social service organizations receiving ‘faith based’ federal funding for emergency help also ‘require’ the person applying for benefits to be a member of their faith, attend their church services in order to apply, etc. Most agencies do NOT do these kinds of things and do NOT discriminate among the clients, but there certainly needs to be better federal oversight on this issue. Unfortunately, federal oversight is too often objected to as being ‘an attack on religious freedom’. Religious freedom is vital but if they can’t combine their religion with nondiscrimination religiously in providing social services, they shouldn’t be applying for and getting federal monies. In order for ‘religious freedom’ to be federal funded it’s necessary to also PRACTICE ‘religious freedom’ towards the clients.