Some UCC and most Christian Coalition leaders sound suspicious of President Bush's Office of Faith- Based & Community Initiatives. Strange bed-fellows, indeed! Among their worries: fear of violating the First Amendment; government control of, interference with, or regulation of faith-based programs; and competition (the Rev. Sun Myung Moon might vie for dollars and souls).
But we discount these worries. We support the Initiative's goal of eliminating barriers to church receipt of tax dollars. Here's why:
First, the specter of breaching the separation of church and state is a red herring.
The First Amendment prohibits government expenditures that have the purpose and primary effect of aiding religion. It does not prevent faith-based groups from receiving tax dollars for social welfare and health programs.
Last year, operating budgets of 341 agencies in the UCC's Council for Health & Human Service Ministries totaled $3.6 billion, with charitable contributions accounting for $28 million (about three-quarters of one percent).
Most of the $3.6 billion came from Federal, state and local governments through Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, replacing AFDC—Aid to Families with Dependent Children), and other tax-based programs. UCC health and human service ministries would dry up, were it not for the taxing authority of government.
True, contributions and volunteer service are essential to carrying on quality work in God's name. But God depends mostly on tax dollars.
Second, will government over-regulate or control faith-based programs? Having been involved in faith-based human service ministries for more than 45 years, I (Richard Ellerbrake) can testify that government's role is to regulate; the provider's role is to resist inappropriate regulation. The genius of our system is in the negotiation.
Third, will government dollars be claimed by doers of the lesser good, and competition heightened? We say, what's wrong with competing on a level field? If Muslims or "Moonies" can deliver a higher quality of service than Lutherans or UCCs, who benefits?
We urge the UCC to adopt a more positive view about the Initiative. Our church fosters caring communities, energizes us for social action and contributes to a robust exchange of ideas. As it seeks to be a transforming presence in our culture, the UCC can and should continue to work with the state.
Richard P. Ellerbrake is President Emeritus of Deaconess Health System, St. Louis, and former Pastor- Director of Back Bay Mission, Biloxi, Miss.
Leigh Hunt Greenhaw is Lecturer-in-law at Washington University Law School in St. Louis and represents the Missouri Mid-South Conference on the Board of Local Church Ministries in the UCC's national setting. As I See It is a column to acquaint readers with UCC leaders and their views.