One added thought can

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, September 11, 2002

make a good idea bad


Syndicated Columnist

Sign up for our daily email newsletter

Get the latest news sent to your inbox

March 31, 2001 10 PM

WASHINGTON – The U.S. constitution dictates that Congress "shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion."

It’s right there in the First Amendment, even before the guarantees of free speech, press and assembly.

The question is whether the Congress is preparing to violate this treasured "establishment," which separated this country from those our freedom-seeking forebears left behind in Europe.

I’m talking about the surprising unpopularity of the Bush administration proposal to bankroll religions in their provision of social services. People like the idea only if it means more money and added prestige for their brand of religion.

"Do you think it is a good or a bad idea," a recent New York Times poll asked, "for the federal government to give money to religious organizations so they can provide social services like job training and drug treatment counseling?"

Two-thirds agreed it was a "good idea."

But not so fast!

"What if that meant the federal government would be giving money to religious organizations such as the Nation of Islam, the Church of Scientology and the Hare Krishnas?" the Times survey asked in follow-up. "Then do you think it would be a good idea or a bad idea?"

Two-thirds answered that it would be a "bad idea."

There’s quite a lesson here. A "good idea" becomes a "bad idea" by the introduction of a fresh new thought. Money dispensed to the church and synagogue will also be dispensed to mosque, storefront and street. Federal dollars that win goodwill for the familiar religions will do the same for those the majority finds strange.

This is precisely why the founding fathers wrote the First Amendment. Members of mainstream religions may not hear the church-state wall crumbling when their own church is getting the booty. They hear the cracking loud and clear when word passes to them that some Hare Krishna or scientologist may be lining up for a fat federal subsidy.

This explains the odd jamboree joining up to fight President Bush’s "faith-based initiative." The good folk don’t mind a teensy violation of the "establishment" clause when it comes to them and their close religious neighbors. But breathe a word about spreading some of the government’s loose change to the street-level "faiths," and you’re looking at the tower of Babel.

Chris Matthews, a nationally syndicated columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle, is host of "Hardball" on CNBC and MSNBC cable channels. The 1999 edition of "Hardball" was published by Touchstone Books.  

Contact Us

Letters: Send your commentary to the Troy Messenger.

News tips: Have a story or tip for our staff?

Subscribe: Get the Troy Messenger delivered to your door or mailbox.