Bush's faith-based initiative a ‘mixed blessing'
Written by Jimi Izrael and Andy Lang
March 2001

On Jan. 29, surrounded by leaders of many faiths, President Bush announced that he intends to make federal funds available to "faith-based" organizations. "Government cannot be replaced by charities, but it can welcome them as partners," said Bush, repeating almost word-for-word a 1999 campaign speech. "We must...work in fruitful partnership with community-serving and faith-based organizations—whether run by Methodists, Muslims, Mormons or good people of no faith at all."

While some religious leaders laud the president's initiative as the dawning of a new type of American government, others, like the Rev. C. Weldon Gaddy, a Baptist minister who heads up The Interfaith Alliance, fear it will allow the government to climb into the pulpit.

"This whole thing is a religious-liberty nightmare," he told the Boston Globe. "You can't have federal funds supporting sectarian proselytizing."

The Rev. Barry Lynn, a UCC minister and executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, takes his criticism a step further: "Bush's plan is the single greatest assault on church-state separation in modern American history," he said. "People shouldn't have to go to a church they may not believe in to get help from the government."

Others don't see a serious threat to separation of church and state in the president's proposals. In any case, supporters say, there is time to sort out the problems. Many features of the program will require action by the U.S. Congress.

Not a new idea

Government payments for social services owned and operated by churches are not exactly new, of course. Charities related to the UCC and other faith communities spend millions of public dollars every year. Service or diakonia, in the community and on the international stage, has roots in the New Testament church, but in the last century government has become an increasingly important partner, allocating tax dollars to church-related hospitals, clinics, food banks and retirement homes.

The president's initiative, however, reflects a trend in state and federal legislation that greatly expands the potential scope of subsidized services provided by faith communities. The trend is a by-product of "welfare-to-work" reforms adopted first by state governments and later by the U.S. Congress. Based on the belief that welfare recipients can be pushed into the labor market by terminating their benefits, the new policies typically encourage churches and other private organizations to provide an array of community services—including job training and child care—designed to help the unemployed find work.

Wisconsin was the first state to experiment with "charitable choice," as government-subsidized charity has been called, and the concept has been embraced by welfare reformers in most other states.

In 1966, the idea caught on in Washington when Sen. John Ashcroft (R-Mo.), now the Attorney General, championed an amendment to the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act that allowed religious organizations to bid on federal contracts for job training and other "bootstrap" services.

Anticipating objections that federal dollars could be misused to subsidize strictly religious activity, Ashcroft's amendment prohibited groups from using government funds to seek converts. But some faith-based charities, especially those operated by Christian evangelicals and groups such as the Nation of Islam, do make active attempts to convert those who benefit from their services. They have found it problematical to organize separate services: those privately funded, which can legally engage in religious activity, and those subsidized by the government, which cannot.

Church-state distinction blurred?

The White House says the president's plan will maintain the ban on misusing government funds for religious purposes. But critics still believe the initiative will blur the distinction between church and state. Subsidized faith-based charities will be hiring thousands of welfare workers, for example, and the president's legislation may allow those groups to demand conformity to religious doctrines or membership in a congregation as a condition for employment.

"The faith component becomes the primary consideration in the social program formula," says the Rev. Patrick Conover, legislative director of the UCC's Washington office for Justice and Witness Minstries, "and the government shouldn't be able to dictate that." Moreover, Conover says, a ban on misuse of funds for proselytizing may be impossible to enforce.

Bush's plan would eliminate the requirement that churches and other religious bodies organize separate agencies to compete for subsidies. At present, it is the church-supported agency, not the church itself, that spends public money. But faith communities that accept federal funds directly may live to regret the largesse, says the Rev. Bryan Sickbert, executive director of the UCC-related Council for Health and Human Service Ministries, an umbrella group of hospitals and other service agencies.

"Government contracts are tricky," says Sickbert. "They require a great deal of expertise to manage. Funds can easily get co-mingled. If the government decides to come in and do an audit, this could really damage a congregation." In fact, a government audit of misappropriated funds could threaten a congregation's survival.

"And the government doesn't want to be closing down churches because they can't pass a federal audit," says Conover in Washington. "That makes me nervous, and it makes a lot of people in the Bush administration nervous, too."

Next steps

What are the next steps? Bush has created a new White House "Office of Faith Based and Community Initiatives" to promote the program.

The office will work closely with existing federal agencies, including the Department of Health and Human Services and and the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and will attempt to identify and remove bureaucratic barriers that stand in the way of faith-based and community social programs.

But most of the president's plan will require action by Congress. The administration's proposals "give us an opportunity to engage in a study process of sorts," says Conover, "and we want to as many churches as possible to examine their own theology, and reexamine what it means to be a church in the UCC.

"After all, we are churches first," he says. "We're not social service agencies."

"Specific to this legislation," he continues, "we need to examine two things: what is our relationship to the state? And what is our relationship to the myriad of [government] social programs that address the growing hunger and poverty in this nation?"

Many in the religious community find it encouraging to see government enlisting the "armies of compassion," as Bush describes religious and community organizations, to expand service in the community. They feel that both the community and people of faith will be better off as a result.

But others fear that the government is preparing to abandon social welfare with the unrealistic expectation that local congregations, without adequate funding, will be able to fill the gap. How, they ask, does the president's trillion-dollar tax cut fit into his vision of thousands of federally-subsidized community services for job training, after-school programs, prison counseling and child care? Where will the money come from?

In the end, the president's initiative may be a mixed blessing, with no easy answers to difficult questions. "‘Charitable Choice' and all its components need to be carefully considered by UCC churches," Conover says thoughtfully, "before we decide to support or oppose it."

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