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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Faith is a powerful force, in part because for Americans it applies to all sorts of things--recovery from an illness, material success, getting the soldiers home in time of war. Whether for the alcoholic battling an addiction or for a community mobilizing the delivery of social services to its needy, an appeal to faith is bound up with America's self-confidence, optimism, and hope.

The idea that faith is a source for abundant riches runs deep in the American Way of Life. In this respect, it might be said we have faith in the power of faith. And the savvy politicians are those who recognize this.

But why, then, the problem with "faith-based" charities? Aside from well-known worries about the separation of church and state, there are other reasons. One is a deep mistrust of government, no matter who occupies the Oval Office. Shouldn't we worry about a deception--or at least an obfuscation--in the talk about faith-based charities? Does not "faith-based" really mean "religion-based" in the minds of many politicians and public officials? Moreover, isn't there something deliberate and manipulating about such talk, as if rank-and-file Americans can't figure out what is going on in high political places? Suspicion runs high that the answer to all such questions is yes.

A second reason, far more subtle, has to do with the meaning of faith itself. At an earlier time, when the Judeo-Christian influence within American life was stronger, faith and religion were closely linked in people's minds. One spoke of faith, or faith traditions, as if they were synonymous with religious bodies or denominations. A person was of the Catholic or Lutheran or Baptist faith.

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But in an age of greater individualism, faith has become more personal and open to interpretation. As far back as 1978, pollster George Gallup Jr. told us that eight out of 10 Americans agreed that "an individual should arrive at his or her own religious beliefs independently of any churches or synagogues."

Hence, the term "faith" carries less baggage than in the past, but we now know less about what it means. Traditional believers use the term in keeping with a religious heritage; others decide for themselves its content and meaning. Faith is still powerful in its own way, but only as individuals define it.

So when people discuss faith-based initiatives, suspicion arises. Liberals fear that "faith-based" means evangelical Christians, and the latter fear it means fringe religious groups.

Then there is the ever-expanding religious pluralism. Aside from Catholics, Lutherans, Baptists, Jews, and all the other hundreds of groups known to be "religious" or "faith-based," what about the Institute of Esoteric Transcendentalism, or the American School of Mentalvivology, or the Institute for the Development of the Harmonious Human Being? Are they faith-based?

Faith in the faith-based suddenly becomes less sure of itself and potentially more divisive than unifying.

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