The Conscience of the State

President Bush's support for faith-based initiatives has sparked a raging debate about the separation of church and state. But are we worrying about the right things?

My deeper concern is the prophetic integrity of religious groups who might appropriately receive some government funding. Why? Because those in power often prefer the service programs of faith communities to their prophetic voice for social justice.

In the early days of the Clinton administration, the president expressed support for the work many of us in the religious community were doing to solve social problems. I remember personal notes from the White House and talk about "working partnerships." But in 1996, President Clinton signed a welfare reform bill that lacked crucial supports needed by single mothers and their children to move out of poverty. Some of us spoke out. Police arrested 55 inner-city pastors in the Capitol Rotunda as we read the words of the prophet Isaiah, "Woe to the legislators of infamous laws who cheat the poor among my people."

The personal notes from the White House and discussions of partnerships suddenly stopped. Dialogue with the president apparently didn't include criticism. But in the tradition of biblical prophets such as Isaiah, the religious community is called to speak truth to power. Having had breakfast in the White House and been arrested for protesting its policies, I've learned the former is more dangerous to the prophetic vocation.

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Sojourners Magazine March-April 2001
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