The good news-but only barely so-is that the U.S. House of Representatives has passed a bill to help faith-based ministries develop a role in addressing the nation's social ills.
The bad news is that Congress seems to be far too inclined to rip the essence out of President Bush's original ideas. The bill that finally passed the House on July 19 is only a skinny skeleton of what was first proposed.
The even worse news is the argument a largely Democratic juggernaut used to oppose the legislation. For even though the Bush forces prevailed in the final vote, it was almost certainly a Pyrrhic victory. In the process of prevailing, way too many Republicans all but conceded a costly point.
We dare not give government dollars to religious organizations, the Democratic coalition argued, because of the risk that those groups will practice illegal discrimination in their hiring practices. Explicitly, these folks argued that some conservative religious organizations will discriminate against homosexuals who might want to work for them. Implicitly, they suggested that anyone who discriminates against a homosexual might well be expected also to discriminate against racial minorities. So devious was this argument that a few members of the black caucus who had supported the measure ended up voting against it.
Let us admit frankly here that our past sins as political conservatives and theological evangelicals have once more caught up with us, and are exacting their toll. Most of us tended to be laggards in the effort to bring about fair hiring practices for racial minorities.
But it is altogether appropriate to admit those wrongs and still to argue justly (and vigorously) that employment discrimination against homosexuals is not at all the same as employment discrimination against racial minorities. No serious Christian can justify from the Bible any hiring practice that would put an individual at a disadvantage because of his or her race. But any serious Christian should at the very same time admit that we face a whole list of problems-both biblical and practical-in the hiring of a practicing homosexual.
The difficulties are biblical in that for the entire history of the Christian church (and you can throw in all of Jewish history as well), homosexual practice has been understood to be repugnant to God. Serious Christians simply can't set that fact aside. The difficulties are practical because, if the biblical difficulties are real, then it is also wrong for a Christian to put a practicing homosexual into a place of leadership and influence in a place of employment. Since a place of employment involves health issues, counseling issues, spousal issues, and a host of similar matters, it is impossible for a committed Christian not to apply a biblically instructed conscience to those considerations on an almost daily basis.
The federal government has paid modest lip service to these difficulties by giving assurance through the years that religious organizations might enjoy exemptions to such anti-discrimination laws. So if the Roman Catholic Church or the Salvation Army or the Mormons can demonstrate that they have historically opposed homosexual practice as immoral, then society offers such groups a certain kind of leeway-which means they won't be forced to change their ways and hire homosexuals. Especially, they won't be forced to hire homosexuals for "religiously" sensitive posts.
But that has now been proven to be only a superficial concession. Freedom of religion is a terrific concept-so long as it doesn't cost the freedom-givers any money. If the Roman Catholics, Salvation Army, and Mormons want to exercise freedom of religion at their own expense, fine. But if they want to take their place at the table with others, benefiting equally as they engage in various kinds of social relief work, they can take government money only if they give up their religious freedom.
Christians should never have sold their souls in such a Faustian bargain. They should have insisted instead that the government's initial decision to protect homosexuals from employment discrimination is itself just as "religious" a decision as is any religious group's commitment to engage in such discrimination.
Equally to the point, Christians should have said long ago that the federal government has no more right to bind the consciences of individual citizens on such issues than it does to bind the actions of so-called religious organizations. If I'm running a so-called secular business, and decide that it's unhealthy-and wrong-to let a homosexual employee bring his partner to a company picnic, the federal government needs to see it as a serious intrusion on my religious rights when it penalizes me for holding to that standard.
But the signals we got last week, even from some conservative Republicans, were that they'd be happy to negotiate away such rights in exchange for the privilege of bargaining for a little soup money from Uncle Sam. We've already gone too far down this road. Let's not even think of going farther.