Base language

When did religion turn into "faith-based activity"?

By Scott Rosenberg

Published February 1, 2001 7:26PM (EST)

Warning: This is an irritation-based article.

I must have heard the term "faith-based" long before it became the centerpiece of a new Bush administration initiative -- but like so many political coinages, it had floated beyond my active consciousness, in a haze of Beltway rhetoric. This week, though, "faith-based" became an inescapable refrain, as President Bush announced his plan to funnel money to groups that, somewhere in their DNA, boast a relationship to some deity or other. Overnight, the word "religious" began to fade from the public lexicon -- its place at the table of political debate usurped by this self-effacing newcomer.

Here's Bush explaining his new plan: "We will not fund the religious activities of any group, but when people of faith provide social services, we will not discriminate against them. As long as there are secular alternatives, faith-based charities should be able to compete for funding on an equal basis and in a manner that does not cause them to sacrifice their mission."

Now, the U.S. Constitution does enshrine a principle known as the separation of church and state, based on the First Amendment's reasonably unambiguous declaration that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion." The principle has served us well for a couple hundred years now, both to restrain those who'd wish to install some particular religion as "official" and to prevent the government from interfering with the private worship of citizens.

But hey, religion is no longer in the picture, and the First Amendment makes no mention of faith-based organizations, does it? So I guess it's OK for the government to pump them with large sums of money.

Admittedly I address you as an employee of a language-based organization -- so I have my own agenda. I prefer direct words and phrases that aim to communicate clearly; I dislike words and phrases whose main purpose is to hide the speaker's intent. If President Bush wishes to hand taxpayers' money over to religious organizations I would like for him to name them as such, and not veil his plans in the comforting gauze of euphemism.

As carbon-based life forms with reason-based behavior, we deserve no less!

Scott Rosenberg

Salon co-founder Scott Rosenberg is director of He is the author of "Say Everything" and Dreaming in Code and blogs at

MORE FROM Scott Rosenberg

Related Topics ------------------------------------------