Monday, December 11, 2006

God And Government

Two news stories give us further evidence of the ways in which religion is working in the public sector. The first one is about prisoners getting more amenities if they go along with some religious indoctrination:

Life was different in Unit E at the state prison outside Newton, Iowa.

The toilets and sinks — white porcelain ones, like at home — were in a separate bathroom with partitions for privacy. In many Iowa prisons, metal toilet-and-sink combinations squat beside the bunks, to be used without privacy, a few feet from cellmates.

The cells in Unit E had real wooden doors and doorknobs, with locks. More books and computers were available, and inmates were kept busy with classes, chores, music practice and discussions. There were occasional movies and events with live bands and real-world food, like pizza or sandwiches from Subway. Best of all, there were opportunities to see loved ones in an environment quieter and more intimate than the typical visiting rooms.

But the only way an inmate could qualify for this kinder mutation of prison life was to enter an intensely religious rehabilitation program and satisfy the evangelical Christians running it that he was making acceptable spiritual progress. The program — which grew from a project started in 1997 at a Texas prison with the support of George W. Bush, who was governor at the time — says on its Web site that it seeks "to 'cure' prisoners by identifying sin as the root of their problems" and showing inmates "how God can heal them permanently, if they turn from their sinful past."

One Roman Catholic inmate, Michael A. Bauer, left the program after a year, mostly because he felt the program staff and volunteers were hostile toward his faith.

"My No. 1 reason for leaving the program was that I personally felt spiritually crushed," he testified at a court hearing last year. "I just didn't feel good about where I was and what was going on."

For Robert W. Pratt, chief judge of the federal courts in the Southern District of Iowa, this all added up to an unconstitutional use of taxpayer money for religious indoctrination, as he ruled in June in a lawsuit challenging the arrangement.

The Iowa prison program is not unique. Since 2000, courts have cited more than a dozen programs for having unconstitutionally used taxpayer money to pay for religious activities or evangelism aimed at prisoners, recovering addicts, job seekers, teenagers and children.

Is this what Bush meant when he said that his government wouldn't discriminate against religious groups?

The second story has to do with the military:

A military watchdog group is asking the Defense Department to investigate whether seven Army and Air Force officers violated regulations by appearing in uniform in a promotional video for an evangelical Christian organization.

In the video, much of which was filmed inside the Pentagon, four generals and three colonels praise the Christian Embassy, a group that evangelizes among military leaders, politicians and diplomats in Washington. Some of the officers describe their efforts to spread their faith within the military.

"I found a wonderful opportunity as a director on the joint staff, as I meet the people that come into my directorate," Air Force Maj. Gen. Jack J. Catton Jr. says in the video. "And I tell them right up front who Jack Catton is, and I start with the fact that I'm an old-fashioned American, and my first priority is my faith in God, then my family and then country. I share my faith because it describes who I am."


Weinstein, a White House lawyer in the Reagan administration, cites Defense Department regulations barring personnel from appearing in uniform in "speeches, interviews, picket lines, marches, rallies or any public demonstration . . . which may imply Service sanction of the cause for which the demonstration or activity is conducted."

All the officers are identified in the video by their Defense Department positions, "yet the video failed to include any disclaimers indicating that the views expressed were not those of the Department of Defense," the letter says.

Sounds iffy to me. But at least the military is not discriminating against Christianity, I guess.

What these two stories share is the implied use of power in the hierarchy to benefit Christianity or some sects of Christianity. The power is more than implied in the first example, because the prisoners are provided with material incentives if they join a religious group, which means that those who won't join are punished by the absence of these material comforts. But the second example links to power, too, as any grunt watching the video would know. How do you refuse to listen to your superior in the military, even if he or she is preaching religion?

I recently read that the Pope wants religion to be present in the public sector and the same argument is not uncommon in this country. But to be "present" is a very different thing from fairly forceful conversion efforts, and to me these two news stories are about conversion.