Campus religious leaders wait to assess Bush's plan

by Julia Levy | 3/7/01 6:00am

George W. Bush's idea of giving federal subsidies to faith-based organizations probably would not affect Dartmouth, but that doesn't mean that campus religious leaders aren't analyzing the plan and forming their initial impressions.

Most of the religious leaders who talked to The Dartmouth indicated that they wouldn't fully form their opinions until they knew what Bush's plan entailed.

"This idea is an exciting idea but it needs a lot of careful thinking," the Tucker Foundation's Program Coordinator for Religious Life Suzanne Semmes explained. She chose not to comment on the stance that Tucker -- the umbrella for the campus's religious organizations -- is taking at this point.

But with religious groups on Dartmouth's campus, and throughout the nation, operating under different ideologies, it is no surprise that many initial stances on this program vary greatly.

One of the beliefs that divides opinion most deeply are positions on conversion. Rabbi Edward Boraz explained that Judaism does not have a history in proselytizing and, further, discourages "people from actively seeking conversion into Judaism."

This sharply differs from the Christian and Muslim perspective. Both religions ask adherents -- at least passively -- to attract other people to their faith.

"You are supposed to get the message out," Yousuf Haque '02, the president of Alnur, the Muslim Students Association, said. He clarified, "You're not supposed to try to force people to convert."

And Anna Mayer, associate chaplain at Aquinas House, said Catholicism advocates "evangelization by example."

"If people are attracted to the Catholic Church by example, by the way we live our lives, we're more than happy to talk to them and if they want to join the Church, there's a program of study they can enter into."

Neither Mayer or Haque said religion would typically come up in the midst of a community service program -- unless questions were raised that warranted religious-based answers.

But, as Boraz pointed out, "The opportunity to use federal funds for religious purposes presents a blurring of the separation of church and state."

Nationally, many have raised this issue of "blurring" and asked whether government money should support groups founded on the precepts of religion that seek to spread their dictums. Even some religious leaders, who might receive government aid under Bush's plan, oppose it because they claim the new tie with the government would keep them from bringing religious ideas into community action and would limit their potential to do good.

Haque said he could understand the rationale behind Bush's faith based initiative: "He wants to restore dignity and he wants to bring back morality ... that's what the religious groups have traditionally done."

He said it seems hard to understand how a program like this would work or how it could affect students at the College, but he added, "if people get more involved in the community, it can only be a good thing." Islam, he said, encourages Muslims to get involved in their communities.

At Dartmouth, the Muslim student population is relatively small, about 50, and the Muslim Student Association was only started within the last decade. Nonetheless, students are involved in some community action -- including educational programs at local schools -- and they hope to get more involved in the future, according to Haque.

Mayer said she could not comment on what AQ, as a body, thinks about the plan.

"That would be as varied as the number of people who attend Aquinas House," she said, explaining that Catholic students have political outlooks that range from liberal to conservative.

But, like Islam, Mayer said Catholicism encourages its members to help out in their communities. AQ has its own service projects and also prods students to get involved in Tucker activities.

According to Boraz, Jews are also strongly encouraged to help others. In fact, one of the main tenets of Judaism is doing "mitzvot," or good deeds.

Students affiliated with Hillel are currently active in working with David's House, a relief agency called American Jewish World Service and the local Jewish youth group, among other pursuits.

Boraz said the Bush plan seems to have a positive intent. However, he pointed out that while promoting social good, theology might get tied up in the mix and the government might end up funding preaching instead of community action.

He said that his concern applies to "a Jewish organization or any other faith-based institution, particularly if a faith-based institution has as a value a proselytizing message."

Boraz suggested that the government proceed very carefully with this type of program. "There are certain inherent dangers when religious institutions work in a financial relationship with the government," he said.

He wouldn't call his reserve "alarm," but he said, "I would agree that there's cause for concern."

Advertise your student group in The Dartmouth for free!