THE DISASTER on the Gulf Coast is the occasion for public prayer. President Bush invites the nation this week to place the victims of Katrina in the hands of an all-loving God, an impulse many of us share. In Boston and other cities, religious figures have been at the forefront of welcome expressions of concern. On the scene of the catastrophe itself, religious organizations have provided heroic relief, often in stark contrast to hesitant government agencies. The value -- and values -- of religion have been on full display during this crisis.
And yet, Katrina's aftermath opens a curtain on the new -- and troublesome -- place religion occupies in the culture of America. Continuing a train of thought I began last week, I find myself wondering if the abysmal performance of government agencies in responding to this crisis isn't related to the unprecedented emphasis the government itself has been putting on ''faith-based" groups as key providers of social services? There is nothing new, of course, in religious organizations as generous suppliers of various public needs. One thinks of the parochial school system or the Salvation Army. But politicians from Washington to the state capitols have exploited this tradition of religious generosity to justify the rollback of programs dating to the New Deal.
Why is the shift from government to religion troubling? Doesn't it square with the idea that common-good activities flourish from the grassroots up? And isn't religion essentially a matter of compassionate love, an ideal no one would claim for public institutions? Religion directly addresses the mystery of death and suffering: What better institution to meet the needs of the suffering? Aren't religiously motivated providers, for whom the cardinal virtues are professional qualifications, less prone to large and small corruptions? What's to choose between, say, Mother Teresa and a form-obsessed social worker? Wouldn't we all prefer to have our needs met by the communion of the saints?
Maybe not. My unease is partly rooted in a question about religion and partly in concern for something essential to civil society. Religion, too, is of the human condition, and religious people (as they will tell you) are as sinful as anybody. The good reputation of religion survives despite those sins. Government, meanwhile, is held in contempt, a dichotomy related to a divide of the mind embodied in the ''separation of church and state," which has virtue on one side, corruption on the other. The state is firmly located in ''secular" culture, lately denigrated as the ''culture of death."
An over-the-top critique of the nonreligious realm -- ''secularism" -- is a staple of religious rhetoric, but the main tenets of democracy itself (pluralism, human rights, rational inquiry) were vigorously opposed as ''modernism" by almost all religious organizations. The ''state," it turns out, is as holy as the ''church."
The church-state divide, undercutting norms of supervision and accountability, means religious groups, even while entrusted with public functions, can embody antipublic values. To take last week's most glaring example, Operation Blessing, one of the FEMA-recommended relief agencies, is affiliated with Pat Robertson, an advocate of assassination as a tool of foreign policy. Why were American citizens being encouraged by the United States government to support Pat Robertson's enterprise?
Even when faith-based groups claim to offer social services with no strings attached, one must ask if such detachment is possible. The missionary impulse is implicit in the good works of religion. Mother Teresa required nothing of those she helped, but she still hoped that the compassionate face of Christ shined through her eyes. To some of us, it surely did -- but that hope itself can become an imposition on those who are in need.
The problem is redoubled when religiously sponsored good works supply essential needs in place of government responses. Something essential to democracy is at stake here. The rights of citizens to basic relief, especially in times of crisis, are rooted not in charity, but in justice. Charity can be an affront to the dignity of citizenship. Citizens in a democracy, after all, are the owners of government; therefore government help is a form of self-help.
Finally, appeals to ''faith-based" substitutes for the supply of basic needs have disguised a hidden agenda. The destruction of public social services has been nothing less than an attack on people in need, as if their need itself is deserving of punishment. The war on poverty has become a war on the poor. That it is waged in the name of God, in alliance with those who claim to honor God, is blasphemy.
James Carroll's column appears regularly in the Globe.