BOSTON — It was barely a week past the 2001 inauguration when the new president’s plan to fund the “armies of compassion” was reported on the evening news with more than a touch of skepticism. The story of a White House office for faith-based initiatives was illustrated with a large cross and introduced with a question: “Is there a reason to be nervous?”

This broadcast followed an election in which the three R’s — religious, right and Republican — had been tightly woven. The minister at the inauguration had invoked Jesus Christ the savior, and millions of Americans from Sikhs to Unitarians had to choose between saying amen and feeling excluded.

Nevertheless, I thought there was more reason to be hopeful than nervous about the idea of funding more social programs for the poor under spiritual roofs. I remembered a time when our most prominent religious leader was not Pat Robertson or James Dobson but Martin Luther King Jr. Had we forgotten how many religious groups cared more about good works than good election results? I thought it was worth, well, a leap of faith.

Before long it became clear that the faith-based initiatives were based on only one kind of faith. And it became clear that the faithful was political.

Fast-forward to the fall of 2006. In September, there was a Values Voter Summit in Washington. The equation between values voters and conservative evangelical Christians had become so automatic that no one even noticed that the summit was held on Rosh Hashanah, a high holy day on the Jewish calendar. No Jews need apply. Or Muslims or liberal Protestants or … fill in the blank.

Abroad, a recent Boston Globe series on foreign aid showed how, through a series of executive orders, religious groups have obtained hundreds of millions of dollars in government funding — 98.3 percent of it to Christian charities. Your tax dollars are at work, sometimes changing the message that comes with American aid, even promoting the healing powers of a Christian God.

In one hospital in the ultra-sensitive Muslim turf of Pakistan, the X-ray machine, the blood bank refrigerator and the radiology computer bear the USAID sticker, “From the American People.” In the waiting room of this underutilized hospital “The Jesus Film” is shown.

At home, The New York Times reported at length that religious organizations are not only exempt from taxes but increasingly from civil rights laws. A church may now use its tax-free dollars to build retirement communities where the average resident’s net worth is $1 million.

Finally along comes David Kuo, once the No. 2 man in the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. In his book “Tempting Faith” he recalls how the stars in the religious right’s firmament were described by White House honchos as “nuts,” “goofy,” “boorish.” He confesses that the office did more for politics than poverty. How values voters were valued only for their votes.

Strolling down the aisles of a conservative religious convention with Lesley Stahl of “60 Minutes,” Kuo pointed to brochures against homosexuality, cloning and abortion — but none fighting poverty. For his political apostasy, he is described in one online Christian magazine as “An Addition to the Axis of Evil.”

Is there a reason to be nervous? In this array of controversies over faith and politics, the question is not just whether religious leaders were the users or the used. It’s about our identity as Americans in a changing country and world.

On Tuesday morning, at 7:46, the 300 millionth American was born into the most religiously diverse country in the world. We include an estimated 5 million Muslims, 2 million Hindus and 2 million Buddhists. We are home as well to Zoroastrians and Druids and millions who attach themselves to no religion. While 80 percent of Americans identify themselves as Christian, half now personally know a Hindu, a Muslim or a Buddhist. We go to school together, work together, live together.

This everyday pluralism, suggests Princeton sociologist Robert Wuthnow, has led many toward a greater acceptance of religious differences. It’s led others, those he describes as “quite staunch in the belief that only their religion is true,” to become even more entrenched. “We are going in both directions,” says Wuthnow. Which is the future?

Kuo calls on religious conservatives to take a “fast” from politics. And it’s high time we pushed back from the political table and turned from the argument over which voters have values.

But I also keep thinking of the USAID sticker on our gifts to the world: From the American People. What exactly do we bring to the world? The best export of our large, diverse and often contentious democracy is the idea that people can worship separately — or not at all — and live together. We the people, not we the parishioners.

Ellen Goodman’s e-mail address is ellengoodman(at symbol)

Your support matters…

Independent journalism is under threat and overshadowed by heavily funded mainstream media.

You can help level the playing field. Become a member.

Your tax-deductible contribution keeps us digging beneath the headlines to give you thought-provoking, investigative reporting and analysis that unearths what's really happening- without compromise.

Give today to support our courageous, independent journalists.