Will charitable choice erode the separation of church and state

The Bush administration proposal to fund "faith-based" social services has jangled a lot of Jewish nerves, for both good and bad reasons. This proposal would expand the "charitable choice" part of the 1996 welfare reform law, permitting church social services to be funded even if they are fully packaged in sectarian religious doctrine.

Like the old proposal, the new one would provide "safeguards." Among them: President Bush said that "a person in need should not be forced to go through the door of a faith-based organization to receive help." In addition, if clients do not want to use faith-based services, other programs that are acceptable to them must be easily available.

Nonetheless, one job-training program in Texas, funded through charitable choice, taught its clients to accept Jesus Christ as their savior — and it was the only such government-funded program within 60 miles. The American Jewish Congress is suing.

Jews are understandably nervous about a program that can spring such leaks in the First Amendment's "wall of separation" between church and state. For most Jews, that constitutional "wall" is important because it separates the state from the Christian church, the main source of hatred against the Jews for many centuries. But we are sometimes slow to recognize several circumstances that have changed.

The hard evidence is that the age-old Christian hostility to Jews is at a historic low in America. In addition, although Jews still name fundamentalist Christians as the most anti-Semitic group in America, they now consistently measure low on the scale of anti-Semitic attitudes. Moreover, Americans as a whole are more resistant than ever to any sectarian breach. In a recent survey, for example, out of every 10 Americans, seven said we should not have any spoken prayers in the schools, two said it was OK to have prayers mentioning God. Fewer than 10 percent said we should allow prayers that mention Jesus.

All that is the result of exceptional American conditions, including the First Amendment, which finally promise to erode the anti-Jewish pathology of past Christian regimes. So why take any risks by fiddling with success? Well, another formidable and often ignored risk for Jewish life and security has emerged: a decline in the fundamental values of the Judeo-Christian civilization.

As President Truman put it: "The fundamental basis of this nation's law was given to Moses on the Mount. The fundamental basis of our Bill of Rights comes from the teaching we get from Exodus and St. Matthew, from Isaiah and St. Paul…[if we forget that] we will finally end up with a totalitarian government…"

The values in American society that most protect us — the belief in the sanctity of human life and freedom — are rooted in that religious base.

Anyone who thinks such sentiment is empty Bible-thumping should be reminded that the most deadly attacks on Jews in the 20th century were committed by Hitlerism and Stalinism — both profoundly bent on destroying Judeo-Christian values and institutions. Some historians now say that the major world conflict in the last century was between the Judeo-Christian civilization and the paganist reformation represented by Nazism and Leninism.

The nub of this dilemma is that we do not want religious doctrine to directly shape public policy, but we do want that policy made by people committed to the baseline religious values to which Harry Truman referred. As we have learned, the vacuum created by the displacement of such religious values could be as dangerous for Jews as a breach in church-state separation. Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.), for one, worries that American society has fallen into such a "values vacuum" and has said he is "of one mind" with President Bush on his faith-based proposal.

This faith-based program will not in itself save religious values anymore than it will solve our social welfare problems. But do we really want our government, with its virtual monopoly on funding welfare programs, to lock churches and synagogues out of those programs, even with rules against sectarian abuse? To do so is to send a message that goes beyond church-state concerns and touches on attitudes about the role of religion in our society.

The values in our society that most protect us are rooted in that religious base. The vacuum that would take the place of such religious values would not only be dangerous for Jews, but unfriendly for the "Jewish renaissance" we so need.

The Judeo-Christian base of the American society is not about to collapse, and it will not do so just because we reject this faith-based program. But Jews, especially, cannot afford to be indifferent to the incremental erosion of religious values around us — and, at the least, must try to balance that concern with other genuine concerns. It is chilling to note the recent finding that only four out of 10 American Jews think "religion should play an important role in shaping American values."

With respect to issues of this kind, we stand guard on both of two slopes: the breakdown of church-state separation and the erosion of religious values. At the moment, the latter slope may even be the most slippery.