Church and State

How much should federal managers let faith be their guide?

Many leaders say faith plays a central role in their decisions. In a debate three weeks before the 2004 election, President Bush explained: "My principles that I make decisions on are a part of me, and religion is a part of me."

His opponent, Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., said essentially the same. "My faith affects everything that I do, in truth," Kerry said. "There's a great passage of the Bible that says, 'What does it mean, my brother, to say you have faith if there are no deeds? Faith without works is dead.' "

Both men sought to be the country's top federal manager. And both clearly thought it would be to their political advantage to explain the centrality of faith to their leadership practices. Neither suffered public retribution for his revelations, despite the tradition of the separation of church and state in this country. On the whole, this is a nation that does not shy away from expressions of faith.

Indeed, the line of separation between church and state does not prohibit religious expression or discussion in the federal workplace. Bush's first attorney general, John Ashcroft, held morning prayers with staff at the Justice Department. There's been a Bible club at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland since the 1970s. And an executive order by President Clinton in the late 1990s gave federal employees express permission to hold prayer groups and to discuss religion with one another.

Clinton's order even said it's acceptable for federal employees to try to convince their co-workers that their religious views are right-to proselytize, in other words. The order says only that the proselytizer must stop if the listener asks "or otherwise demonstrates that it is unwelcome."

Supervisors are singled out for particular restrictions in that order. Bosses cannot explicitly or implicitly require subordinates to participate in religious activities or create a hostile work environment on the basis of religion. And when dealing with the public, they must be careful not to represent religious beliefs as official government policy.

Bush recently said that he believes a religious revival is under way in the country, a "great awakening" similar to previous increases in religious activity in the nation's history. His own faith-based initiative is helping religious charities grow and participate in federal programs. In the realm of social services, "government-faith collaboration" is one of the latest buzz phrases describing the growth of partnerships between public agencies and faith-based groups to help the needy. For several decades, the line separating church and state seemed to be deepening. Now it appears to be softening.

Still, in the end, government has secular purposes. Government, for example, spends money to help ex-felons master the skills necessary to make an honest living and avoid recidivism. It provides education to develop an informed citizenry. It provides temporary housing to people whose homes are destroyed in natural disasters. Religious groups participating in government programs have to focus on those secular purposes, regardless of the theology that motivates them to serve.

Faith always has been a key driver of public servants, whether they are in the government, nonprofit or religious sectors. On the church-state line, federal managers who are driven by faith themselves have some leeway to talk about religion, but must in the balance let their good works speak for them.

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