Saturday, February 3, 2001
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Posted on: Saturday, February 3, 2001

Matters of church and state

By Mike Leidemann
Advertiser Staff Writer

I don’t remember when I first heard the phrase "separation of church and state" but it has to be somewhere back there with the Pledge of Allegiance, "America the Beautiful" and the Cuban missile crisis.

Pretty basic stuff. Fundamental, really. Not the first thing you learn in civics class, but pretty close.

Now it turns out that what the Founding Fathers put asunder, George W. Bush plans to reunite.

At the same time Bush is talking about giving us all tax breaks, he’s planning to give $8 billion of our tax money to create an office to help religious and spiritual groups, which will then provide social services that Bush, for some reason, doesn’t want the government to provide. While the authors of our Constitution created a wall of separation between church and state, Bush seems to have just created a federal agency to unite the two.

As a good liberal, I’m a big believer in government spending for social services, but I’ll be the first to admit that the government hasn’t always done a good job of spending the money efficiently, or distributing it wisely to secular nonprofit groups. I’m pretty dubious that organized religious and spiritual groups can do any better in delivering, with your tax dollars, after-school programs for children, job training, drug treatment, prison rehabilitation programs and abstinence programs.

Call me old-fashioned if you want, but if someone is going to provide social services, I’d rather trust the job to an amoral government. At least that way, we don’t have to make a choice between those religions we accept and those we don’t.

Still, I’ve got to admit the prospect raises interesting possibilities of pairing up some venerable religious institutions and government programs in Hawaii.

Hare Krishnas join forces with Meals on Wheels to deliver hot curry lunches to shut-in senior citizens.

Church of the Crossroads gets a federal highway grant to promote more of those annoying traffic circles around Oahu.

The venerable Catholic Charities of Hawaii receives a $2 million grant from HUD and starts managing Kamehameha IV housing for the state.

The First Assembly of God starts its own ROTC program.

The Hilo Hongwanji Mission teams up with the Green Harvest rangers to launch a Just Say No Program in Puna.

Well, maybe not.

Our government may not be perfect, but when you come down to basics, its only real purpose is to serve the public good. You know: "Of the people, by the people, for the people." And that means all the people, not just those who can align themselves with one religion or another.

It just seems so basic.

Mike Leidemann’s columns appear Thursdays and Saturdays in The Advertiser.

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