- The Washington Times - Monday, February 5, 2001

An orthodox rabbi once told me that his wife gave birth to all their children in Catholic hospitals. The nurses, some of them nuns, were "soooo nurturing." Neither proud papa nor ecstatic mama felt threatened or offended by the crucifix on the wall over her bed.

When my father was a boy he was recruited to play catcher for St. Dominic's in Washington's Parochial League. He told the priest who coached the boys that his last name was Bregmanio adding two vowels at the end of his real name and that he was Italian.

The priest may or may not have had his suspicions, but after St. Dominic's won the league championship, someone told the priest that my father had lied, that he was Jewish, not Italian. He told the team they had to return the trophy. It was a lesson my father never forgot.

I was the precocious Jewish princess in my public school who refused to say the name of Christ when we sang Christmas carols. I shut my lips tight so others would notice. But I showed no resistance to choosing the prettiest ornaments to hang on the tree or even to tuck the tiny Christ child in the cradle in the creche beneath the tree. I was totally inconsistent in the ways I let my holiday participation come between me and my Hebraic conscience.

Ah, that was then and this is now. We've become so super sensitive about revealing religion in our secular lives that these stories from yesteryear sound archaic, innocent, even quaint. They recall an old-fashioned point of view about other people's religion, when blunt discrimination and tactless judgments made us both more and less aware of our religious differences.

In our politically correct culture, intolerance goes underground. I know Protestant and Jewish women today who wouldn't trust a Catholic hospital because they think theology could color medical decisions. If my father played on St. Dominic's team in 2001, parents of the other boys might sue the school for depriving their sons of the championship. My father's parents might look for a lawyer because St. Dominic's wouldn't let a Jewish boy play ball.

Nobody hears Christmas carols or marvels at Christmas trees in public schools today, and school administrators lie about the holidays with sanctioned seasonal names "winter break," "spring break" rather than call them for what they are, breaks for Christmas and Easter. The old system had its problems, but we've swung the pendulum wildly in the opposite direction.

We're spoon fed tolerance without having to test our own reactions. In being overly sensitive to another's religion we ignore it, become suspicious of it or pretend it isn't there. The new "Thou shalt not" is "Thou shalt not bring religious influences into our secular lives." Just as religious folk once shunned sinners, the sinners (who would never call themselves that) now shun religious folk. (You could ask John Ashcroft.)

That's why President Bush's initiative to let faith-based organizations compete for federal contracts in social programs is controversial. To unbelievers there's something that's not kosher in religious faith.

But as long as the government isn't endorsing a religion, and faith-based services don't dictate religious adherence (there must be secular alternatives), we're merely strengthening the array of approaches to solve some of our most intractable social problems. These include drugs, alcohol, violence and teen-age pregnancy, problems that religious organizations have demonstrated that they deal with better than government bureaucracies. "Religion can't change the facts about the world we live in," writes Harold Kushner in his book "Who Needs God." It can change the way we see those facts, and "that in itself can often make a real difference."

Barry Lynn, the director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, insists that the new faith-based policy initiative will lead toward government-funding of "religious bigotry." But bigotry denotes exclusion, and the president's faith-based initiative is about inclusion. Rather than lowering the wall of separation of church and state, social service workers of both church and bureaucracy who deal with the "wretched refuse" of the underclass can shake hands in partnership across that wall.

George W. Bush echoes the sentiments George Washington expressed in his famous letter to the Jewish Congregation of Newport, R.I., in 1790: "Happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens in giving on all occasions their effectual support." That sounds to me a lot like the Golden Rule.

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