Some of my friends and professional acquaintances who are secularists complain that religious social agencies will not provide primary services to persons who do not share the faith commitments of the agency’s sponsors. They imagine a soup line that includes an armed and perhaps leisure-suit-wearing Southern Baptist deacon guarding the food and asking, “Do you subscribe to the Baptist Faith and Message? No? Then no soup for you!” This explains, perhaps, why so many social agencies include statements of non-discrimination in their published materials.
As one such person told me, the government must supplant religious organizations in the service of the poor: religious fundamentalism says who can and cannot receive basic services such as food, shelter, clothing, and even job training. This person was making the errant assumption that because a social agency might hire only members of their sect or faith segment that they might likewise discriminate in their services. They may have a point when we move to other services such as adoption, but they have set up a straw man for basic services based on a false analogy.
Advocacy on behalf of the poor is a basic tenet of Christianity and it always has been a distinctive of true Christians. Relief to those in need has always been offered freely. Just ask the folks in the Northeast about those Southern Baptists, who wear yellow windbreakers and not leisure suits, as well as the other religious groups that have flooded the region with volunteers who are pushing back the tide of hunger, cold, and loss.
Against this background comes the word that New York City’s Mayor Bloomberg has decided that they must outlaw food donations to the poor because the materials cannot be assessed for falling within the guidelines for salt and fat. Apparently he has misread Luke 11:11 in the King James, “If a son shall ask bread of any of you that is a father, will he give him a stone?” I have read that stones can fill hungry bellies with a false sense of satiety, and I suppose that stones are the ultimate in low-salt / low-fat material, at least as long as they aren’t halite. Unfortunately, stones are not very nutritious. Neither is the gift of nothing, like the Marie Antoinette-ish admonition, “They have no bread? Let them eat arugula with low-fat dressing!”
This, then, is where we are. We now not only say, “You can’t serve the poor because of your religious beliefs,” we even tell the poor, “You can’t be served because of our secular beliefs.” And it’s the radical secular fundamentalists who are the new Taliban, destroying religious artwork and, apparently, turning into soup kitchen Nazis. This makes perfect sense, after all, because we now live in an era where “up” is “down,” “hot” is “cold,” and “right” is “wrong.” Too bad “hunger” can’t become “satiety” through the mere wave of a bureaucratic hand.