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RELIGION, LIGHT AND DARK: A Paris-eye View Of Faith-based Initiatives


Wednesday, Jul. 25, 2001

Nothing like a dose of Europe to put American legal issues in some perspective. From my current perch near Notre Dame on Paris' Ile de la Cite, things look very different than in the U.S.

Accomplishments and Tragedies

As I was on the way to the airport in Los Angeles, the radio was playing one of those hectoring opinion pieces that occasionally crops up on NPR — this one from a scholar at the Heritage Foundation extolling the virtues of President Bush's "faith-based initiative."

This beneficent view of religion is surely understandable. The cathedral right down the street is testament to the extraordinary human accomplishments undertaken in the name of God. On the home front, and less visibly, religiously inspired charities teem with people who ask little more than to do the grinding quotidian work of helping the less fortunate improve their lives.

But it is difficult to visit Europe and not appreciate equally those who view organized religion with a more jaundiced eye and who, accordingly, seek a pristine division between church and state, even at the cost of forgoing whatever benefits support of religious institutions might bring.

More than 500 years ago, the St. Bartholomew's massacre of Protestants was planned not far from where I write. Within a stone's throw, Kings and Cardinals spent centuries plotting religious wars. Today, I strolled through the exquisite Place des Voges, build by the Catholic convert Henry IV — assassinated by Ravaillac, a religious fanatic.

A Two-Sided Ledger

Modern history is no less bloody. Christian Europe turned a blind eye (at best) as the Jews were gassed. Even the sophisticated jewel of Paris was no stranger to mass deportation.

Along this long continuum of time, organized religion frequently stood fast against the march of scientific inquiry. In the main, religious institutions were also unfriendly to the Enlightenment ideas that came to shape our own notions of liberty and just government.

And thus, it seems to me that the notion of religious institutions being inherently better suited than secular ones to serve the public good has a peculiarly ahistorical and American ring to it. Indeed, it may be that such a notion could only be taken seriously in America — which, thankfully, has never suffered the severity of religious division and fanaticism that has taken its toll over here.

No Dark Side to American Religion?

The issue is not purely academic. A major constitutional question now confronting courts is the degree to which government, in the context of general social programs, can provide direct financial subsidies to religious organizations.

In the particulars — whether the program involves computers for schools or money for religiously based drug treatment — the stakes feel small. But a glance at the blood-soaked run of religious history cautions that the principle of separating the resources of government from the resources of the church is large indeed.

Put another way, when the Supreme Court finally takes up the issue of whether school vouchers violate the constitutional ban on the establishment of religion, will it be a matter of secularists ginning up a tempest in a teapot, or of fundamental safeguards at risk? For the moment, I'll sit on the fence in Paris.

Edward Lazarus writes about, practices, and teaches law in Los Angeles. A former federal prosecutor, he is the author of two books, most recently, Closed Chambers: The Rise, Fall, and Future of the Modern Supreme Court.

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