September 26, 2001 | Commentary on Religion and Civil Society, Civil Society

America's Good Samaritans

When President Bush announced in January his plan to support the work of religious organizations that help the poor, church-state watchdogs began growling. A "recipe for religious bigotry," some charged. Others warned that government funds for charitable groups would "stir religion's fury."

Ever since the terrorist attacks at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Americans of faith have indeed been stirred -- to relentless, sacrificial action. Rarely in the nation's history have religious communities mobilized with such unity of purpose to help their needy neighbors. And even more rarely have America's political leaders shown such good judgment in promoting their civic influence.

Almost as soon as the Twin Towers erupted in flames, nearby churches and charities were transformed into safe havens, shelters and sources of food and medicine. The Bowery Mission, a mile from ground zero, came to the aid of about 3,000 people seeking refuge. St. Vincent's Hospital in Greenwich Village cared for more than 300 of the injured. The Chassidic Jewish Community in Brooklyn set up refreshment tables at the base of the Brooklyn Bridge to help those fleeing on foot.  

Religious organizations -- many with government support -- have mobilized thousands of volunteers and millions of dollars in resources to supplement relief efforts. Glad Tidings Tabernacle in New York is raising money for the families of flight attendants killed in all four plane crashes and creating a payroll fund for those who've lost their jobs. Working closely with the Red Cross, the church has become a clearinghouse of supplies for firefighters and relief workers. "We've got volunteers everywhere, and help from the churches in the area," says coordinator David Cushworth.

Within a week of the attack, the Salvation Army collected more than $20 million to assist victims and their families. World Vision, an international relief organization, is working with a network of more than 1,700 churches in the New York area, offering everything from clothing to crisis counseling. Convoy of Hope, based in Springfield, Mo., has shipped some 120 tons of food and other supplies to sites in Washington and New York, with more on the way.

Critics of the president's faith-based agenda claim that religious charities discriminate against needy people or bully them into religious programs. The reality is that America's Good Samaritans are unconditionally helping their neighbors, regardless of their ethnic or religious backgrounds. At the same time, public officials are eagerly accommodating the demand for church services and prayer vigils -- such as the interfaith prayer meeting at Yankee Stadium -- without a murmur from civil libertarian groups.

There have been a handful of attacks against American Muslims, but ministers are acting decisively to diffuse potentially tense situations. The Brooklyn Quakers are walking Arab and Muslim children to school every morning. Numerous American Muslim organizations have unambiguously condemned the attacks and called on fellow believers to offer help.

 It's true that some religious leaders have used the tragedy to air their personal bigotries. Evangelist Jerry Falwell, for example, told a TV audience that homosexual and abortion-rights activists had incited God's anger against America and that the nation is getting "probably what we deserve." He later apologized for remarks that "seemed harsh and ill-timed."

But as President Bush has made clear, there's no suitable time for such invective. By deploring religiously motivated discrimination and encouraging the best religious impulses of the American people, he is displaying a quality of statesmanship that has disarmed some of his fiercest critics.

The president called for a national day of prayer and spoke movingly of the nation's "kinship of grief." He invited city and community leaders to the White House to praise their relief and rescue work. And he has stood repeatedly with Islamic leaders to condemn acts of hate against American Muslims, asking all to "pray for healing and for the strength to serve and encourage one another in hope and faith."

At moments of national crisis, America's religious communities have performed exactly this role -- from waging the fight for independence, to coping with the devastation of the Civil War, to keeping the civil rights movement on a course of non-violence. During his 1830s visit, Alexis de Tocqueville marveled that in America -- unlike in his native France -- the spirit of religion and the spirit of freedom "were intimately united and that they reigned in common."

Some may believe America can face this season of testing without the bond of faith and freedom. But history suggests otherwise, and our most mature political and religious leaders have shown us we need not try.

Joseph Loconte is the William E. Simon fellow in religion and a free society at The Heritage Foundation, and a commentator for National Public Radio.

About the Author

Joseph Loconte William E. Simon Fellow in Religion and a Free Society

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