When Church Becomes State

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When Church Becomes State

Anat Shenker-Osorio

Why does the religious right demand government interference in matters of sexuality and yet eagerly block government involvement in matters of welfare? By eliminating government assistance, they hope to force the public to turn to the church.

When you’re in the Peace
Corps, you expect culture shock. But it’s generally not supposed to come from
your countrymen. Among many foreign experiences I had in Honduras a decade ago,
interpreting for a brigade of fundamentalist Christian doctors was perhaps the
most disturbing.

They set up their operations
in our dance hall, triage at the entrance and stations of doctors inside. They
brought enough free medicine to put Pfizer on notice and dispensed it
generously to the hordes who had walked up to four hours seeking a few moments
of attention to make up for a lifetime without medical care. This, of course,
seemed a right and noble thing.

But then I noticed that, in
addition to the expected diagnostic questions, the Spanish-speakers manning
triage kept asking “Es Ud. evangelico o catolico?” Tragically, only the first
answer got you into the queue. While I quickly rushed out to let my neighbors
know that they were all evangelicals for the day, I was horrified that these
good samaritans deemed this an acceptable way to ration their aid. Here was
public assistance with strings attached; 
a foreshadowing of when church becomes state. This may have happened far
away in a “banana republic”, but our Banana Republicans seem determined to bring
this home to stay.

Weeks ago, readers of this
site were rightly fuming when Congress threw another $50 million down the
abstinence-only wishing well. Right-wing intentions to police sexuality by
restricting abortion, blocking access to birth control and opposing marriage
equality are well known. Equally clear are their desires to eviscerate social
assistance, visible through efforts to block a public option for health care,
privatize education by making public schools undesirable and cut assistance to
people in need.

Roe is gone. The chaos is just beginning.

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Much ink has been spilled and
many explanations offered for why the right seems determined to demand
government interference in matters of sexuality and so eager to block
government involvement in matters of welfare. They care a lot about who we’re
sleeping with but it’s on us to afford buying a bed.

This seeming contradiction has
been characterized, effectively in my view, as stemming from beliefs about the
very nature of the relationship between citizen and state.  It is a relationship that can be and
indeed is often likened to that of a parent and child. If you believe that the
parental (read: governmental) role is to enforce a worldview of adherence to
authority, individualism and self-reliance, these inconsistencies — and let’s
face it the corresponding ones we hold dear on the left — make a bit more

But what if, while true, this
explanation is just part of the tale?

What seem like two
contradictory missions, one for government intrusion and the other against
government involvement may actually prove one coherent and effective strategy.
By eliminating (or at least drastically crippling) government assistance,
proponents of conservative ideology force the public to turn to the most likely
remaining source of aid: the church. Houses of worship have always been an
incredible haven for those in dire need — but now in too many communities they
are the only refuge.

Current conditions,
especially as state governments are ripping more seams in our threadbare social
safety net, mean a continuation of this trend. When public schools are too
horrible to consider, people enroll their children in the cheapest private
option: parochial schools. When food stamps, WIC and the like dry up, people
turn to food pantries almost always operated by religious institutions.

And as they spend more
time in certain kinds of churches and, perhaps eventually as a requirement to
receive this aid, they will absorb and then transmit the moral beliefs of the
religious right. When free clinics and non-profit health services can no longer
pay their rent or their staff — will churches become the provider of last
resort? We may find ourselves in triage struggling to assert religious beliefs
we don’t hold or at least aren’t interested in offering up as a pre-condition
for assistance. Some day soon it may not only become even harder to get an
abortion, you may need to declare your opposition to it just to get