Terms like "faith" and "spirituality" are the words people use today when they don't want to say "religion." Faith and spirituality sound soft and positive. Religion? Well, that sounds doctrinal and rigid, even divisive. The distinction makes sense for many Americans, especially for the one-third of the population who report having had bad experiences of one kind or another with religious organizations.

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Politicians and public officials have long known the value of nebulous language when it comes to God-talk--that is, vague reference to faith and spirituality is unifying, whereas too much talk of religion can divide. Even if they have in mind churches, synagogues, temples, and other religious organizations when they engage in such talk, they know to be careful. The R-word is risky; better to use the F-word and avoid any dubious connotations.

But of late, there are added worries even with the F-word. When President Bush opened his Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, religious conservatives welcomed the news. They saw it as a nod to the important role of faith. Religious liberals had mixed reactions, with some seeing possibilities for the idea, but with most opposed to the plan because of worries about separation of church and state.

Then came a new development: Religious conservatives began to worry publicly about the program, fearing it will invite government intrusion into religion and allow groups like Scientology to get public money. As a result, we hear much less talk now about the proposal than in the first several weeks of the new administration.

All of this invites some analysis about the cultural meaning of "faith" for Americans, and how it may be changing.

Clearly, the notion of "faith" is as powerful now as it was a half-century ago. Back in the 1950s, Eisenhower spoke of the necessity and power of faith, calling it "the mightiest force that man has at his command." It is still probably the mightiest force for Americans. Religious conviction remains central to understanding why no other country can boast more charities and volunteering. When asked about why we should help others, we rely on the language of faith. Perhaps the clue lies in the word should--our sense of duty and obligation is deeply rooted in religious conviction.

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