Pork at the Pulpit

The proverbial wall between church and state now already shaky has a whole lot more shakin' going on.

Some Republicans are leading church groups to think they can win a chunk of federal money under the Bush "faith-based" initiative if their flock of believers votes for GOP candidates come November.

The White House official in charge of faith-based federal policy, James Towey, has made appearances in hotly contested states before largely African-American audiences. After one event sponsored by the South Carolina state GOP, follow-up letters written on Republican stationery were sent to 1,600 black ministers inviting them to learn how to apply for grant money.

The original purpose of this initiative was to reinvigorate private, social welfare programs of religious groups in order to improve the national effort to uplift the poor and disadvantaged. The president himself has consistently maintained that this program isn't about politics at all.

The president's initiative has passed the House, but not the Senate. Still, the executive branch already has a $30 million "Compassion Capital Fund" made available by Congress for so-called "technical assistance" to faith-based groups in their charity work. The government has altered the rules so that money can flow through intermediaries directly to religious organizations' operating funds.

And on Oct. 10, just weeks before the election, the Bush administration will start a series of conferences on faith-based community projects. It's invited at least 1,000 organizations to attend the conferences, which will last until March.

To be fair, Democrats have long helped minorities apply for federal money as a way to win votes. While that type of pork barrel is no way to run a democracy, the GOP crosses a more dangerous line by leaving the impression that only those churches that vote Republican might receive federal grants.

That would put government squarely in the business of favoring one religion over another based on the way they vote. That lack of neutrality is exactly what the current Supreme Court frowns upon.

African-Americans, who largely vote Democratic, broadly support public funding for faith-based social programs. With this new type of federal funding, the GOP may have seen a chance to win more black votes by imitating a Democratic practice.

The pork mentality in Washington, whether it's Enron buying access or candidates buying votes through federal spending, has become so excessive that now it even threatens a constitutional mandate to keep the state out of religious affairs.

Turning organized religion into yet another money-seeking supplicant to the federal trough though political favoritism doesn't help those seeking clean government or spiritual growth.

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