Clerics Search Souls, Artists Demand Payment

A couple of weeks ago in this space, the Reverend Brian

Jordan suggested that religious organizations pause for a moment’s reflection

before signing on to President Bush’s faith-based initiative. Father Jordan,

who works with poor immigrants at the Church of St. Francis of Assisi on West

32nd Street, wondered if taking government money for the provision of social

services will taint the mission of religious organizations. “Faith-based groups

are called to be prophetic by the memory of their founders,” he said. “Are

these groups compromising any of their prophetic quality by abiding by

government guidelines? The government can’t treat these institutions like

government employees.”

Father Jordan’s own

prophetic qualities are formidable. Two months after he spoke with The Observer , the issue he raised back

when everybody was talking about Bill Clinton and Marc Rich is now under

vigorous discussion. From his electronic pulpit in Virginia, Pat Robertson is

sending messages similar to those Father Jordan expressed in this space. Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne

noted recently that the Bush initiative has “unleashed intense argument and

soul-searching among those who were presumed to be its prime supporters and

beneficiaries.” Critics, from conservative Christian clergymen to African-American

ministers, “say much the same thing,” Mr. Dionne noted. “With Caesar’s coin

comes the obligation to submit to Caesar’s rules.”

The New York Times Magazine on April 1

presented a version of this discussion, focusing on a woman named Alicia

Pedeira, who was fired from her job with the Kentucky Baptist Homes for

Children because of her “homosexual lifestyle.” If organizations like the

Kentucky Baptist Homes for Children are going to receive federal funds, The Times asked, should they be able to

fire employees like Ms. Pedeira because of their “lifestyle”? Because religion

can, according to The Times , “bleed”

into such categories as race, gender and sexual orientation, is it not time to

reconsider the exemption religious organizations receive from laws prohibiting

religious discrimination? Those wishing instruction in correct thinking did not

have to read too closely in order to grasp the piece’s message.

Ms. Pedeira has filed a

lawsuit, so the issue is headed for the federal courts.

The most fascinating aspect of this conversation is that it

is taking place at all. Most people would have expected the nation’s churches,

synagogues and mosques to leap at the opportunity to receive federal money to

fund their social-service programs. Instead, they are wondering aloud about the

price of their souls.

This is not the kind of introspection one associates with

some other beneficiaries of federal largesse, i.e., the artists, museums and

other cultural organizations whose consciences are untroubled by the flow of

money from the National Endowment for the Arts and from the budgets of local

governments. Rather than wring their hands about the possible corrupting

influence of government money, a generation of artists has come to believe that

publicly funded grants are an entitlement, and those who either oppose them

outright or seek some kind of review process are nothing more than neo-Fascist

shredders of the right to free expression. Faith-based organizations may

torture themselves about the rules that accompany federal money; artists

believe that rules simply don’t apply to them. Free expression, don’t you know?

It’s in the Constitution! Indeed it is-contained in the same amendment that

guarantees religious freedom.

One needn’t be a fan of Rudy Giuliani’s decency commission

to notice the double standard at work. Stout-hearted defenders of the First

Amendment deplore Mr. Giuliani’s notion that publicly funded art ought to

receive a public vetting before being deemed worthy of taxpayer support. The

streets of Soho and the dining rooms of many a patron of the arts are filled

with cries of censorship. Governments that provide funds for artists have no

right, it is said, to withhold those funds if a sector of the taxpaying public

finds the resulting art offensive. First Amendment and all that.

That’s a valid and indeed honorable argument, so one might

expect right-thinking artists to stand alongside their brothers and sisters in

the First Amendment as the nation’s religious organizations attempt to balance

their right to religious belief with the acceptance of government money. One

suspects, however, that the denizens of Dante’s Inferno will be turning triple axles before the nation’s artists

will person the barricades on behalf of Pat Robertson’s right to worship as he

sees fit while taking federal money to minister to the poor.

So some of the very same people who believe cultural

organizations owe no obligation to public sensibilities when they take taxpayer

funds are prepared to argue that religious organizations must abide by the

government’s political dictates if they take the government’s money. If that

infringes on religious belief-well, nobody is forcing these organizations to

take tax dollars. Those who use a similar argument on matters artistic, of

course, will find themselves condemned as censors.