Misplaced Faith

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Not for nothing is Robert Novak’s syndicated column called the “Inside Report” every other edition or so. Most beltway conservative journalists give the impression of reporting only what the RNC has approved for release; their “news” is as predictable as sunrise. Novak by contrast regularly produces scoops, even if they are rigorously ignored by the mainstream press of left and right alike.

After all that’s been written about the president’s faith based initiative plan, Novak earlier this week reported an angle that has gone largely unheralded. “By pushing federal money into religious channels to help the poor, Bush hopes to end big business’ stubborn refusal to contribute to faith-based institutions. That could open the spigot of vastly more plentiful private funds and menace the government social service bureaucracy, threatening triumphant secularists in the cultural war,” he wrote.

For once the faith based initiatives plan actually sounds like a plan. It’s still a terrible idea, but at least some thought has gone into it. Before re-examining the plan in this new light, however, it’s worth thinking about the relation of business and government in general. Some traditionalist conservatives are more opposed to big business than to the State, on the grounds that business is even more secular and vulgar than government. Consider for example corporate support for Planned Parenthood or Wal-Mart’s campaign against the Stars and Bars.

The logic of the faith based initiatives plan shows why these traditionalists are mistaken. The attitude of the State toward religion, or toward sexual mores or Southern heritage, actually defines the attitude of big business more often than not. If religion is too controversial and divisive to play a role in government, then it stands to reason that it’s too divisive for big business as well. Sadly the State still enjoys enough prestige and legitimacy in America today to influence the behavior of private organizations. And of course beyond that, the State has the military and financial power to force any institution to adopt its own values. When the State adopts a position, the other institutions of society tend to follow suit either from respect or fear.

This is not to say that big business would be perfectly traditionalist in the absence of State influence, only that it would be much more so than it is today, and that market forces — boycotts — would be even more effective at changing business’ attitude. Nor is it true that the State defines the values of society; instead the State is the mechanism by which the values of one segment of society can be transferred into other parts, since the State claims jurisdiction over every area of society.

Supporters of the faith-based initiatives plan hope that the State can transmit their values to business as well as it transmits those of the secularists. They’re mistaken. The State is historically and essentially Leftist in character. Expanding the scope of the State, even for “conservative” reasons, necessarily reduces the autonomy and authority of traditional institutions like the Church. In the case of faith-based initiatives specifically, it will work like this: The influx of government money will be accompanied by restrictions on proselytizing. The “faith” will be pushed out of faith-based programs by federal dollars. More money may then come in from the business world, following the lead of government, but by the time it does the program will have ceased to be religious in anything but name. The State will have brought both business and religious institutions down to its level.

Government power is a one-way street. The Left can use it because the Left wants to undermine the institutions of Church, family, local community, and so on. That’s how the Left creates “equality.” If conservatives really want something different, they’ll have to use an entirely different approach. It’s clear what that approach would be — shrink the State. Better yet, eliminate it. If the State is not there to lend its power and prestige to radical movements, tradition will flourish. The values of specific communities, religious or just local — Christian, Southern, etc. — will be more pronounced and businesses will have good reason to cater to them instead of to the values of the State. This is hardly a utopian prescription. Culture will still be only as good as the institutions that influence it. But traditionalists should have no doubt that in the absence of the chief sponsor of secularism and radicalism — the State — things would be better.

Daniel McCarthy [send him mail] is a graduate student in classics at Washington University in St. Louis.

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