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Columnists Remarkable Providences



Changes in church-state relations may be on the way

I receive these days about 2,000 emails a month, some with attempts at humor, but one I received at winter's end has stuck with me. This one listed anagrams, words or phrases made by transposing or rearranging the letters of other words or phrases. Some were clever: Dormitory transposed into Dirty Room, Desperation into A Rope Ends It, The Morse Code into Here Come Dots, Slot Machines into Cash Lost in 'Em, Snooze Alarms into Alas! No More Z's, and Eleven Plus Two into Twelve Plus One.

One transposition was particularly impressive. Someone with either brilliance or a lot of time on his hands took Shakespeare's famous, "To be or not to be: that is the question, whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune." He then anagrammed it into, "In one of the Bard's best-thought-of tragedies, our insistent hero, Hamlet, queries on two fronts about how life turns rotten."

Now, an attempt at political transposition has begun. For a generation, the ACLU has tried to turn "God" into "dog," making faith-based programs second-class citizens, and leaving Christians stuck paying taxes for un-Christian programs. Lots of conservative churchgoers have been complicit in this, believing government funds and faith-based programs are the unmixable oil and water of American social services. That's been wise, as long as Congress and the courts dogged any attempts to apply biblical principles to poverty fighting.

Over the years, curiously enough, the ACLU and some Christians became strange bedfellows. The ACLU stressed civic purity: Any program based in a religious organization had to be purely nonreligious, a government look-alike, in order to receive even a single dollar from the taxpayers' treasury. The separatists stressed theological purity: Government dollars are rotten apples that will corrupt the whole barrel.

But here's the question: Did many Christians become separatists out of principle or prudence? Principled separatism means that even if the laws and judicial interpretations were to change, faith means concentrating on things often unseen-such as funding to expand a program-instead of using taxpayer funds. Prudential separatism means pushing the back of the envelope, taking what you can get as long as principle doesn't have to be sacrificed in the process.

Liberals have done Christian unity a favor over the last generation by making one answer to federal entreaties obvious: No. When CityTeam in San Jose, an inner-city Christian mission, could have had bushels of government money to expand a successful anti-poverty program, on one condition-give up your worship service-the answer was obvious: No.

But what if the answer soon does not become self-evident? A law little-known so far has already become an issue in the presidential campaign and is likely to face new legislative and judicial examination in 2001 and thereafter. The law in question goes under the label "charitable choice," the provision of the 1996 welfare reform act that permits federal government funding of religious groups.

The wording of that provision allows for different interpretations. Al Gore on May 24 spoke of lives changed because of "prayer and Bible study" that was able to "pry open the vise grip of drug addiction." In that same speech, however, he said he opposed "proselytizing," which the Oxford English Dictionary defines as the making of a proselyte, "one who has come over from one opinion, belief, creed, or party to another; a convert."

The "charitable choice" provision says that no federal funds can go for proselytizing, and Mr. Gore interprets this to mean that any church group emphasizing conversion is ineligible for funds. His position would make the funding world safe for theologically liberal groups but would make separatism essential for theological conservatives.

Mr. Gore's likely opponent, Gov. George W. Bush, has a different interpretation. He sees charitable choice as allowing all kinds of worship and conversion activities by religious groups, as long as those particular activities are paid for by private funds. Under this interpretation, government funds could pay for the rent, utilities, computers, and much else of religious groups that help people get off welfare or out of drug addiction.

If Mr. Bush is elected, and if the Supreme Court sees it his way, leaders of good faith-based groups will have some tough calls to make. For years they have been frustrated with government bureaucrats. Some of the muttering could fill an email joke transmission: "That official has seen it all, done it all, can't remember most of it," or "He has a photographic memory, but he's out of film."

If we have real change, the easy separationism will have to end. Then the issue will be: Leave with Caesar what has been rendered there, or-if Caesar grabs more than belongs to him-take some back for God.