If you want to pick an argument, tell a group of devoutly Christian American citizens that you think the National Endowment for the Arts has been doing a reasonably good job lately.

To many Catholics and evangelical Protestants, the NEA is public enemy number one in the culture wars.

While understandable, this attitude is misguided. We are in a war, it's true, but the NEA itself is not the enemy; it is merely a battleground, vital terrain on and for which we must contend. Gaining control of the NEA and its $100 million annual budget should be a strategic imperative for Christians who have made this fight their own.

The recent announcement that NEA Chairman Bill Ivey will step down on Sept. 30, eight months before his term expires, offers our new president an early opportunity to define his administration's role in the struggle. Will George W. Bush sit this one out, or will he try to leverage the battle for the good guys? Will Ivey's successor be a professional “culturecrat,” mistrustful of the capacity of the American taxpayer, the agency's sole patron, to recognize and appreciate “diverse forms” of artistic expression?

Or will he be a learned art scholar, committed to upholding broadly held standards of excellence, decency and beauty in the arts?

Many observers would concede that Ivey has done a creditable job during his three-year tenure.

His 27 years as head of the Nashville-based Country Music Foundation gave Ivey an appreciation for authentic American folk culture, including the role Christianity has had in forming that culture. It also kept him largely insulated from the parade of debauchery that often passes for creativity in trendy arts centers like SoHo, West Hollywood and North Beach. Upon arriving in Washington, Bill Ivey was not beholden to the so-called avant garde, and the proof has been in his mature administration of the agency.

That maturity is on display in the 800 or so grants the NEA made during its first round of funding this year. These include $27,000 to the (Episcopal) Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City, used to assist in the conservation of two 17th-century Barberini tapestries, part of a series depicting the life of Christ. A grant of $5,000 will go to Festiva Navidad, a California touring concert of mariachi music and folklorico dancing that retells the story of Mary and Joseph's journey to Bethlehem. The Bach Choir of Pittsburgh will get $7,500 to record Christmas music, while the University of Memphis will receive $29,000 to support the touring exhibition of Coming Home: Self-Taught Artists, the Bible, and the American South, which looks at the impact of the Bible on contemporary Southern artists.

Will some of the projects funded this year anger Christians and embarrass the NEA? Probably. And that really shouldn't be any surprise, given the flood of proposals the agency receives, not to mention the manner in which most proposals are written. An example: $18,000 has been awarded to a San Francisco theater troupe for the development of a play based on the biblical Song of Songs.

On its face, this project looks unobjectionable, even commendable. But if you've ever read Song of Songs, you know that, in the hands of the wrong playwright, it could be a disaster. The point is that the NEA sometimes comes in for criticism it really doesn't deserve.

A new director can minimize the chances of public money being misappropriated for immoral or anti-Christian projects by honing three core missions for the agency.

First, he or she can invest in the preservation of works widely acknowledged to fit within the Western and American artistic “canon.”

Second, there should be a focus on underwriting popular access to the fine arts, especially classical music, ballet, theater and the traditional visual arts.

Third, when funding “creativity,” or new work, the new director ought to concentrate on those institutions and individuals dedicated to employing traditional techniques, themes, materials and so on. There will always be a place in the arts for a true avant garde, but taxpayers should-n't have to foot the bill for art-school faddishness or aimless experimentation.

Whom should President Bush tap to take the helm at the NEA? At the top of my wish list is Ena Heller, Ph.D., director of the American Bible Society gallery in New York City. Whomever the president chooses, it's important that Catholics get involved in the arts at all levels.

If you're a Catholic and an artist, wield your brush or chisel for Christ. Create works that glorify God by showing the beauty of his creation. Read and re-read Pope John Paul II's Letter to Artists from Easter 1999. If you need to support yourself primarily with commercial work, devote a portion of your free time to purely religious projects on your own initiative.

If your gifts lie elsewhere than in artistic expression, support your local Catholic artist. Be a patron. Fill your home with Catholic art, and be sure to include works by living, working artists. Take a course in art appreciation or art history at the local community college. Frequent the nearest museum of fine arts, and let the curator know that you'd like to see more exhibits featuring living religious artists.

As Christians, we know that the enemy is a creeping, all-consuming secularism that seeks to expel the Gospel from the public square. Every day we see our foe inching forward in schools, town halls, marketplaces and, yes, even in our very homes and churches. A new renaissance in Christian art won't be all it takes to build a civilization of love based on the Gospel of Jesus Christ, but it will be an indispensable ingredient in the mortar.

Let's do our part for Catholic art — and not be suspicious when the National Endowment for the Arts lends us a hand. Like the artists of the Renaissance, whose accomplishments would have been all but impossible without private, civic and governmental patronage, we need all the help we can get.

Mark Gordon is administrator of the St. Michael Institute of Sacred Art in Mystic, Connecticut.