There is much to commend this Jeffersonian construct notwithstanding that it often chooses to ignore the many roles small government simply cannot play in modern society and the many benefits we all receive from big government.
But I am struck by the eagerness of at least one faction of American conservatism is to rise above principle when they find it convenient.
Nowhere is this hypocrisy more naked than in the cheerleading of the religious right for the Bush Administrations Faith-Based Initiative.
I have had the opportunity to witness the work of some of these faith-based charities firsthand, and it has been outstanding. Catholic Charities, for example, carries out a multitude of tasks under contract to the U.S. Agency for International Development in some of the most inhospitable venues in the developing world. Other religiously-affiliated groups will be remembered for their splendid performance in providing help to victims of the tsunami.
The work of the overwhelming majority of these and many other similar groups is not about religion or political philosophy. It is about providing food and shelter, or introducing best practices in agriculture, education and public health, or organizing micro-credit programs for the least of these.
First, some of these charities have abused their missions by proselytizing. They have used cataclysmic disasters to spread their personal Gospels. For example, more than a few distributed copies of the King James Bible and Jesus T-shirts to tsunami survivors in predominantly Muslim communities. Others have received grants to conduct clearly evangelical programs for prison inmates in the U.S.
Second, some religious charities have been involved in reproductive health programs and have slavishly toed the Bush abstinence only line in providing family planning counseling to women.
But, beyond doubt, the biggest problem with the Faith-Based Initiative is that it allows fund recipients to practice clearly unlawful discrimination in their hiring practices. The Bush plan says if youre, say, a Baptist organization, its OK for you to hire only Baptists, or if your organization is Christian, you can reject employment applications from Jews.
Thats why the Bush Administration has never been able to get the Faith-Based Initiative though Congress, and the President had to launch it by Executive Order.
The question Congress has been unable to answer is: If the aim of a government-funded charity is not proselytizing, what difference should it make if Im a Muslim working for a Christian organization?
Religiously-affiliated charities ought to stop and reflect on what theyre getting from the government and what theyre giving up in the process.
Money is what theyre getting. But a conservative tenet every bit as central as small government is community support. Private, individual philanthropy has a long and rich tradition in American culture. Many church-related groups dont need public funding. And those that are not running mega-churches or multi-million dollar televangelist enterprises should be looking to their own communities for support.
What these groups are giving up by accepting Federal funds is even more important: Their credibility to speak out on issues that may be unpopular, but that cry out for public dialogue. While they may be comfortable with the values of the Bush Administration today, Bush is not our last president.