I don’t think Dubya is purposely trying to undermine churches and other religious groups, to subvert their independence and transcendental missions and make them mere wards of the state, subsidiary delivery systems for the bogus form of compassion that depends on the use of force to be effective. But I’m afraid that’s what he will accomplish over time with his faith-based charities proposal.

Most critics of the idea seem to be motivated by fear that religious groups will gain too much influence in society at large, that the famed “wall of separation” will be breached to the detriment of the non-religious and the secular, that the public square will become flooded
with religion indirectly subsidized by the state.

My fear is almost the reverse — that churches and other religious organizations will become weakened and vitiated as a result of the suffocating embrace of the state, that they will over time lose (or at least have muted) their unique missions and perspective, their role in reminding believers of the permanent things, of the truths and obligations that call to them from a different plane than the concerns of this world.

The old saying in the Middle Ages was that “He who takes the King’s schilling becomes the King’s man.” Insofar as religious organizations cooperate with the Bush initiative, taking government money to undertake acts of charity and compassion, they will become, at least to some extent, the state’s creatures. To the extent they do so, their spiritual health and to some extent their institutional health and their unique role in society are likely to suffer.

I fully recognize there are attractive aspects to the proposal, that it has the appearance of great potential for being both more compassionate and more efficient (insofar as these are not two sides of the same coin) than the usual kinds of government programs or government grant-making activities. Private charities, especially faith-based charities, are
almost always more effective — especially in terms of bang for the buck, getting real help to people who really need it with limited resources — than government programs or welfare.

So why not channel government efforts to help people through faith-based charities, or at least make them eligible for government grants on an equal basis with secular institutions? What could be wrong with that?

I recognize that there is a legitimate equity question here as well, with some court decisions that at least give reason to consider such a program. If the government of all the people creates programs to help all the people (or those designated as being in special need of particular kinds of help), why should it penalize those who prefer to get their help
through faith-based institutions by not considering such organizations when giving out grants? An argument can be made that it shouldn’t, that a failure to at least consider applications from faith-based organizations for welfare funds might be tantamount to discrimination, perhaps even a violation of the First Amendment.

The courts have generally ruled, for example, that government provision of programs for special-needs children can and should be funneled through religious schools. Sometimes this means taking students at a Roman Catholic or other religious school off-campus for periods of special instruction. Sometimes in practice it means bringing special programs, usually for “developmentally disabled” children onto the campus of a religious school.

Often enough, when that happens, the instruction has to take place in a room where crucifixes and other religious symbols have “voluntarily” been stripped from the walls. The government has an obligation, the reasoning goes, to deliver service to all citizens on a non-discriminatory basis, but doing so in a room with a crucifix might amount to government support of a particular religion. So the money or services come with strings attached, and one of the strings is de-emphasis on the religious character of religious institutions.

Such restrictions are almost sure to be included in the programs under the supervision of the new White House Office of Faith-Based Initiatives established this week. Administration spokesmen have been careful to point out to critics on cable-news chat forums that the mission of delivering welfare services will be carefully separated from the religious mission of the organizations. Churches will be treated as delivery arms of the welfare state insofar as they get government grants, but those programs will be separate from the distinctly religious aspects of the organizations and will certainly not be used for proselytizing.

There’s a certain conscious na?vet? in that argument. Money is fungible. If a church has been budgeting for charitable or philanthropic activities and starts receiving more money from the State for things it has been doing anyway, it might choose simply to increase those activities. Or it might choose to divert some of the funds to evangelistic activities, or to building-and-grounds or music funds. Would that mean the taxpayers are indirectly subsidizing religious activities despite the accounting fictions?

Perhaps more important, most religious people I know and most major religions stress that helping the poor, the sick, the needy, the prisoners of arbitrary power, the friendless and the homeless cannot be separated from belief, that doing good for others is part and parcel of believing — faith in action, if you will, an expression of one’s love and respect for whatever God one worships, which generates a desire to be of help and assistance to all His creatures. How can one aspect of faith be separated from the other? A church can perhaps separate different functions institutionally or organizationally, but in many faiths, as I understand them, this creates at least the possibility of spiritual misunderstanding and possibly even spiritual peril.

I have had some personal experience of such matters. About 10 years ago, in the town where I live, a group of believers started an organization to help homeless people and convinced most of the churches in town to participate. The churches provided people to help at the food distribution center as well as money and people to dun local grocery stores for food that would otherwise be tossed out. The center also directed people to churches and other social-service organizations that provide various kinds of job and psychological counseling for people looking to turn their lives around and get back on their feet.

It didn’t ask people to “qualify” for help, figuring if they showed up asking for help they should get help. And it reminded those who came for help that the help they received was a reflection of certain peoples’ love for Jesus.

The outfit did a lot of good but never seemed to have quite enough money. After a few years the board decided to start exploring government surplus food programs and government grants. It began to receive them and its character gradually changed.

The government grants might not have been the sole reason; even small organizations can have complex dynamics, and in this case a couple of the prime movers moved or died, which brought other people to the fore. But now the organization has scads of paperwork, “qualification” requirements for help and a distinctly more bureaucratic feel to it. And it doesn’t mention Jesus as much, although He hasn’t been phased out completely.

As Michael Tanner, Director of Health and Welfare Studies at the libertarian Cato Institute put it, the president’s proposal “risks destroying the very things that make private charity so effective.” Among the dangers is that organizations whose mission is to get people off the dole and ready for independent self-reliance may themselves be put on the dole, increasingly dependent on and beholden to the federal government.

I take President Bush at his word, that he wants to channel money to effective philanthropic organizations with a minimum of red tape. But government grants always come with standards and regulations, and with some justification; they are intended to assure quality control and accountability for the use of the taxpayers’ money. The price of getting “free” government money will be time spent filling out forms rather than helping people.

Government money will also divert charities from their original missions and, as Mr. Tanner put it, toward “providing services in ways that meet the requirements of the government grant rather than the needs of their constituency.” Thus the closeness to the community that characterizes so many effective philanthropic organizations will be eroded over time.

Some religious charitable activities are effective precisely because they involve a certain amount of what some would view as proselytizing and imposing standards on recipients. Recipients have to listen to sermons or lectures, and are told that turning their lives around is more important than receiving or even earning material goods.

Should the taxpayers be paying religious organizations to deliver sectarian messages? If not, will tax money (accompanied almost certainly by lawsuits and controversy) force religious organizations to tone down the religious content of their charitable activities? Might this vitiate their effectiveness?

In any government program choices will have to be made and they will be political rather than dispassionate. For example, by any reasonably objective standard the Nation of Islam has reasonably effective anti-drug, anti-dependence community development programs in inner cities. But should taxpayers be forced to provide subsidies for the political and cultural
messages of Louis Farrakhan? Or for a band of Wiccans with a good anti-poverty program?

The element of coercion underlies the central weakness of the proposal. The essence of private charity is its voluntary nature, with people helping one another because of altruistic feelings, love of neighbor, or respect for a religious authority that tells them to help the poor and the prisoners. But taxes are seized forcibly. As Mr. Tanner told us, “there is neither compassion nor love behind a grant of money forcibly taken from taxpayers who may have no desire to support the charity in question.”

There are marginally less harmful ways to use the power of government to encourage support for private and faith-based charitable activities. A tax credit for money given to charitable organizations would leave the choice in the hands of taxpayers themselves, not the government (although the government would undoubtedly want to certify eligible organizations, which would increase its power). Mr. Bush has taken a step in this direction by
including in his initiative a provision allowing taxpayers who don’t itemize everything to deduct charitable contributions. There are other provisions that make charitable giving marginally more attractive from a tax and liability perspective.

Those provisions are fine (given that we’re not yet ready to abandon the aspect of the income tax that makes it a way to manipulate peoples’ behavior besides raising revenue). But they don’t neutralize the negative effects of an increase in government grants, with the dependency, lobbying and diversion of mission that will inevitably follow, and in time
undermine the independence of private charities.

Mr. Bush and many religious leaders, perhaps smelling money and the ersatz respect that comes from being recognized by the state, who have jumped so eagerly to support this program should spend some time thinking deeply about the real roots of compassion.

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