Below the Fold: The Clash of Civilizations: Coming to a State Near You

“If you’re addicted to alcohol, if a faith program is able to get you off alcohol, we ought to say, hallelujah and thanks…”

George W. Bush
Boston Globe
March 10, 2006

Well, hallelujah back at ya: the Boston Catholic Archdiocese, seeking to deny gay couples adoption privileges in violation of Massachusetts anti-discrimination laws, decided to get out of the adoption business altogether. They are foregoing their $1 million in state funding for adoption services, and have fired their 15 adoption service workers.

The cause is religious freedom – yes, religious freedom. Because the Vatican in 2003 called gay adoptions “gravely immoral,” Massachusetts’ four Roman Catholic bishops decided on February 28, 2006, to seek regulatory relief from state anti-discrimination laws so that Catholic Charities can begin discriminating against potential gay adoptive parents. Though the agency had successfully placed 13 children with gay couples over the past 20 years with no reported ill effects, Boston Archbishop Sean O’Malley announced that the Archdiocese would insist that Catholic Charities desist in order that the exercise of Church’s religious freedom be preserved.

The Archbishop did not give up without a fight. He ascended Beacon Hill in his ever-present Franciscan drag to convert the First Mormon, Governor Mitt Romney, to his cause, surely a delicious irony for anyone who has been accosted by black badge-bearing Utah boys in city streets and subways. An easy mark was the First Mormon, a presidential candidate and co-religious freedomist, but sadly for our proselytizers, the law is against them. Romney has promised to propose a bill guaranteeing the Archdiocese the right to discriminate against gay and lesbian couple adopters, and to do it with state funds.

The Archbishop’s band of four does not appear to be speaking for others connected with Catholic Charities. Its 42-member lay board voted unanimously to continue adoption to gay and lesbian couples. Eight of its members resigned in protest when the Archdiocese announced it would press on nonetheless for the right to discriminate. A Charities’ law firm declined to handle an exception-seeking lawsuit.

Nothing prevents Catholic Charities of Boston from discriminating and doing adoptions in the future. They just can’t have state money that subsidizes their efforts, or, it seems monies from other foundations and charities such as the United Way that practice non-discrimination against gays and lesbians. The deep reliance of Catholic Charities, like other charities, on government monies discloses just how faith-based our do-it-yourself welfare system already is. Consider that about 60% of Catholic Charities of Boston’s funding comes from government sources, roughly the same proportion true of the national Catholic Charities USA.

The Boston Catholic Archdiocese could do what do what other religious organizations have done, freeing their charity arms from church control, thus leaving the churches to believe and the agencies to serve, subsidized by state funds. Given that the curates created this crisis all by themselves by making their right to discriminate a test of their religious freedom, this path seems unlikely. Or, another family agency that obeys the law could hire the 15 fired Catholic Charities workers, and a cooperative and agile state bureaucrat could funnel the subsidy money to them. A little God-given common sense, one might say, could solve this problem in a jiffy.

Don’t count on it. The curates are on a mission. The American Catholic Church has long been committed to getting the states, federal and the 50, to fund the exercise of their religious freedom, as historic campaigns for state funding for Catholic schools, school bus and textbook subsidies for Catholic kids, and tuition tax deductions and vouchers, among other ventures, testifies. They now seek a radical extension. They seek to enforce Catholic norms and beliefs upon non-believers while acting as the direct agent of the state.

A strange, seemingly odd notion of religious freedom, you might say. Yet it is consistent with a kind of Orwellian double-speak that binds and blinds public discourse in so many aspects of American life today. The great French historian of capitalism Fernand Braudel wrote that capitalists, contrary to their professed love of competition in a free marketplace, actually despise competition and all of its attributes. What real capitalists prefer is monopoly status so they can set usurious prices, corrupt the state in their favor, and annihilate any potential competitors by whatever forces they possess (that’s where the state comes in). Remember: Halliburton is not a fish, unfortunately, even in Boston.

Boston’s Catholic clerics answer to a Church in Rome that is religious master of all it surveys on its home grounds. No grasping mullah, imam or rabbi could ask for more. Roman Catholicism in Italy is recognized as the paramount national religion, its priests paid for by the state, as is their ministry in public school classrooms. Its churches are recognized as part of the national patrimony and repaired at state expense when frequent earthquakes befall the peninsula. Religious instruction is mandatory in state schools: the odd Jew, Muslim, or Protestant may ask to be excused from priestly intellectual benedictions, but many I have known over the course of working in Italy for 25 years, just suck it up, as they say in the army, so as not to reinforce their pariah status. In sum, this is the Church that wants the European Community to pronounce itself a Christian nation.

In one sense, then, seeking some domain over state power and authority is part of the Catholic Church playbook. But in the United States, where Catholics are a religious minority, it means joining up with like-minded Protestants who, not to put too fine a point on it, compose the religious right. In fact, from many perspectives, including my own, the John-Paul II revised American Catholic Church now forms part of the religious right. Armed no less than their Protestant brothers with the truth of Jesus Christ, they seek to put real teeth into expression “one nation under God.” If national norms conflict with theirs, they must be changed. Their religious freedom, and its “free exercise thereof” is diminished if its access to state support is diminished. Like Braudel’s good capitalist, they seek guarantees and a good fix. Their institutions need feeding, and state funds in support of their mission – well, things couldn’t get any better, except perhaps than a state religion itself, which isn’t in the cards in America. The Catholic clerics, after several thousand years, are experienced card players.

This little case is our canary in the civic coal mine. It alerts us to the deeply dangerous zone into which America has entered. And it nicely coincides with a new propaganda campaign this week by the Bush regime to gin up support for expanding so-called “faith-based initiatives.” The administration whether by stealthy recounting or by actual distribution claims that $2 billion of a total of $20 billion in health and welfare expenditures currently goes to religious organizations in our do-it-yourself welfare state. The Big Brother in Christ makes it clear that he supports legislation that goes beyond the current authorization of faith-based program grants, and that will enable religious organizations to evade equal opportunity laws that currently prevent them from using religious preference as a hiring criterion. When government gives support to religious people providing social services, Bush says on the White House faith-based initiative website, “charities and faith-based programs should not be forced to change their character or compromise their mission.”

Somewhere deep in the antediluvian folds of my mind, the phrase “soldiers of Christ” resides, and some conjuring of Ignatius Loyola lurks. The White House would allow a Catholic Charities, say, to choose only Catholics for its social workers, and presumably Catholics of whom the clerics would approve for its state-supported work. This is a clever business: first, get the structure and the money right, and then the hearts and minds will follow. The grace of monopoly power could surely work wonders.

A final note. When one puts the machinations of the Christian right, composed now of the Catholic Church and many Protestant sects, in perspective, it forces consideration of the question of why American imperialism, so open to a kind of religious governance at home, is ostensibly so chary of religious governance abroad. The happenstance of building an imperialist majority at home, as in more Christians, more Catholics, more majority? Or perhaps it is the peculiar US hypocrisy of imperialism as foreign policy. Hypothesizing that constant oil flow and nationalist religious fervor don’t mix, the US becomes agnostic and universalistic abroad, while ignoring its Christian identity at home. Imperialism does seem to induce a somnolence at home about the degree to which we become what we pretend to abhor.

Or is it the case that we have met the mullahs, and they are us? If so, let’s stop killing the rest of the world in such great numbers and hold a great domestic inquisition instead. At least, we would be killing each other rather than annihilating substitutes.