WASHINGTON — Joe Loconte thinks there's an intense anti-religious bigotry in the United States and it “seems to be deepening.” He's not alone.

Many have been concerned for some time about what they see as the “banishing” of religion from the public square.

It's something that becomes apparent each December as Nativity scenes are disallowed from public property.

This year, for example, in order to justify the ban against New York City public schools displaying such scenes, lawyers for the city refused to acknowledge in court proceedings that the birth of Jesus Christ was a historical event.

The Heritage Foundation, the conservative think tank where Loconte is the William E. Simon Fellow in Religion and a Free Society, isn't asking that any particular religion dominate in public deliberations. But it does want to see a public square where people of all faiths (and none) can “engage civic life with freedom and without government support or antagonism.”

Loconte calls the model a “civil public square.”

To help society get there, Heritage in September initiated the Center on Religion and Civil Society. The center's mission is to inform the public, lawmakers, and academic and media elites of the role and impact of religion on civil society and public policy. Center staff will publish and distribute studies, provide data analysis, and host research and public policy forums as well as educational seminars for legislators.

“If there is no place for discussing religion in public policy we could be shooting ourselves in the foot,” said Stuart Butler, Heritage's

vice president of domestic and economic policy studies, who will direct the center. “Let's see if there are ways to capture the benefits of religion without violating the reasonable boundaries between public policy and religion.”

Strong Ties

The decision to found the center now is no accident. In a post-Sept. 11 world, Loconte said, “there is hardly a political issue that is not connected in some way to religion.” Some people now realize the importance of religion as a source of unity and strength in the wake of tragedy. Many others, especially among media elite, are more skeptical or cynical than before.

There's Anthony Lewis, for example. The former New York Times columnist, Loconte pointed out, wrote a Dec. 18, 2002, piece in which he equated U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft, who is a devout Christian, to Islamic terrorist Osama bin Laden. “Any organi-zation that holds strong religious beliefs is a threat to civilization,” Lewis asserted.

Heritage staff of the new center — including Loconte, Butler and Patrick Fagan, the William H. G. Fitzgerald Research Fellow in Family and Cultural Issues — hope to combat this cynicism with what Butler called a “sober, calm and candid” presentation of the beneficial influence of religion on civil society to policymakers and the public.” Their hope rests on two timely developments in American public life.

In the political arena, according to Loconte, the Bush administration— “in a way no one expected” — made the “Good Samaritan” work of religious institutions a major part of its domestic-policy initiatives, putting the issue “on the radar screen to stay.”

And recent rulings by the Supreme Court regarding school vouchers and the Boy Scouts have upheld the rights of religious organizations to engage in public life without compromising their beliefs.

“This provides an opportunity that did not exist 10 years ago for like-minded people who believe in religious liberty to push the agenda forward [toward a] civil public square,” Loconte said.

Robert Royal is president of the Faith and Reason Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank that deals with economics, politics, public policy and other social issues from the point of view of Pope John Paul II's 1998 encyclical Fides et Ratio (Faith and Reason). He finds the Heritage project to be “a good initiative.”

“Pat Fagan has been saying for years that social science, if fairly presented, will prove that the modern popes have been exactly right,” Royal said. “This is a serious start toward that end.”

Center staff members profess various faiths. But Fagan is a Catholic who points out that the truth of man can be discovered by both faith and reason.

“The more intensely the social sciences investigate moral issues in debate, the more they clearly come out pointing in the same direction as the Church,” he said.There's the issue of contraception, for example.

The U.S. Catholic bishops in their annual fall meeting in November agreed to publish a pamphlet explaining Church teaching on the issue, which they acknowledge many Catholics ignore or find confusing. Recent church-state squabbles over laws that would force employers, including the Church, to include contraceptives in their health-insurance plans have found local bishops emphasizing apologetically that they are not questioning people's “right” to use contraceptives but are against the government forcing the Church to act against its “conscience.”

But Fagan believes the Church's teaching is wisdom for all people,Catholic and not.

“I go out on a limb to make the point in certain circles: The more we investigate the practice of contraception and its [deleterious] effects on marriage, courtship, fertility and the good of societies, the more we see that the Church is correct,” he said. “I expect that over time, if we can get enough social scientists to investigate the multiple aspects of the phenomenon, the social science conclusions on contraception will illustrate the correctness of Church doctrine on this issue of human nature.”

Scholars at the center will focus on all organizations that consider themselves to be faith-based. They will evaluate the role and influence of each group in terms of how it helps or hinders the public good in civic, social and political life.

Research Benefits

The benefits of an improved approach to faith-based organizations are many. President Bush's global initiative on AIDS is one, Loconte believes. Bush based his $15 billion initiative on Uganda, which brought down its HIV infection rate more than any country in the world, from 15% to 5%. The Ugandan government did this by cooperating closely with faith-based organizations that promoted changes in risky sexual behavior, abstinence and marital fidelity.

“We're going to promote what happened in Uganda as a terrific example of the vital role faith-based organizations play in the fight against AIDS,” Loconte said.He argues that the social-science data proving the beneficial effects of faith-based groups on civil society is undeniable.

“I'm very encouraged about our potential to make real headway and overturn the anti-religious status quo,” Loconte said. “But you don't change 30 years of anti-religious indifference and bigotry overnight. We have a lot of work to do.”

John Romanowsky writes from Washington, D.C.