Columnists > Voices

Dirty Harry Christians

The wall of separation comes down when the tough jobs come along

Issue: "New Orleans: Starting over," Sept. 24, 2005

Where's the ACLU? This co-mingling of government and religious resources must stop! Church groups, asked by local and state officials to take charge of feeding programs at government shelters like the George R. Brown Convention Center in Houston, also held worship services and passed out Bibles. Pastors prayed with evacuees, apparently thinking they might need spiritual as well as material help. The horror!

Where is press vigilance? Instead of exposing this blatant attempt to destroy the separation of church and state, reporters quoted New Orleans evacuees such as Dorothy Lewis saying she welcomed the Christian service because she (obviously with false consciousness) believed that God saved her family: "I can't go to sleep for thanking Him. I wake up in the morning thanking Him." Reporters uncritically quoted Protestant minister William Lawson telling the evacuees-in a government building!-"God hasn't forgotten you, no more than He had forgotten Job."

Here's why the usual critics are generally silent: Christians are the Dirty Harrys of social service in today's America. The 1971 film Dirty Harry starred Clint Eastwood as a San Francisco cop hated by the liberal mayor but called upon when the going got rough. In the movie, the Eastwood character gained his nickname because he took on the most difficult tasks the city can offer. "Now you know why they call me 'Dirty Harry,'" he tells his partner after heroically saving one person from death: "Every dirty job that comes along."

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Lots of people of many faiths, and some who claim to have no faith, are getting their hands dirty in post-Katrina help. So are government and nonprofit professionals, but when the tally of volunteer hours is done (and only God will know the full amount), it's highly likely that the vast majority of them will have come from Christians. This issue of WORLD once again offers some representative examples of aid in "Quick Helps" and throughout our coverage, but thousands of churches are now involved.

Remember insurance company commercials in which the family provider is suddenly gone, leaving a ghostly frame where the photo once was? That would be our situation if the strict church-state separationists had their way and Christians were not able to offer material and spiritual help in public spaces, sometimes with a piggybacking of resources. When a Katrina crisis occurs, our "separation of church and state" turns into a marriage, with government and religious entities linked in providing aid to victims.

Is that a crime? Not constitutionally. Here's one quick history lesson already familiar to some: The First Amendment opposes any "establishment of religion" but does not advocate "separation of church and state." Thomas Jefferson wanted separation, but that was just Long Tom giving his opinion in an 1802 letter-and what worried many folks then is no longer on the table. The concern 200 years ago was that one denomination would receive governmental backing, as the Anglican church did in Virginia and other colonies before the Revolutionary War, with all people forced to support it financially whether they agreed with that theology or not. This was what "establishment of religion" meant to the generation that rose up against British tyranny.

In recent decades strict separationists have twisted the First Amendment to impose gag rules on Christian leaders in government buildings and involved with social services. But as the World War II saying goes, "There are no atheists in foxholes or rubber rafts," and with Katrina placing hundreds of thousands in rubber rafts, those hostile to religion have been quiet. Some journalists have even uttered words of admiration.

For example, Orlando Sentinel columnist Lauren Ritchie examined a church-led effort northwest of her city and concluded, "You ROCK, Lake County. After being asked Wednesday to help victims of Hurricane Katrina coming here, you stepped forward. Actually, you ran forward, trampling anything in the way, your hands filled with offerings of cash, food, clothing, and furniture. You left First Baptist Church of Leesburg scrambling to take the donations."

Scrambling-and that's how it should be. Advertising posters for Dirty Harry proclaimed, concerning the Clint Eastwood character, "You don't assign him to murder cases . . . You just turn him loose." Christians, turned loose, are doing well so far. Now it's time to keep it up.

Marvin Olasky
Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD News Group and the author of more than 20 books, including The Tragedy of American Compassion. Follow Marvin on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.


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