During the past several days, some in the mainstream press have suggested that I oppose President George W. Bush’s faith-based government initiative that would allow private religious charities to utilize government funds in their efforts. However, my recent admonition regarding the government giving money to religious groups that endorse violence was simply echoing President Bush’s own concerns about potential abuses of the plan.
The truth is that I fully support the president’s program and am excited to see how his “charitable choice” plan can positively impact our nation, specifically in our nation’s troubled inner cities which need new visions of assistance. However, the plan’s administrators must guarantee that the acceptance of federal dollars does not mean religious organizations must water down their faith-based messages which make them distinct.
I believe that faith-based grants should be awarded on an open-access basis, with one exception — no bigots and purveyors of hate (such as the Aryan Nation) should be allowed to participate. Although “religious,” they are racists and there is no room in a government-funded program for such repugnance. While many faith-based groups that will participate in the president’s plan will often have divergent philosophies, the hope of this program is to help those in need, not to disseminate religious messages.
“For too long,” Rep. J.C. Watts (R-Okla.) said earlier this week, “we have excluded [religious groups] from helping us help others.” Mr. Watts, who plans to introduce the “charitable choice” bill next week, along with Rep. Tony Hall (D-Ohio), said, “We need all the soldiers we can muster.”
Mr. Bush’s own explanation for encouraging the plan is simple: “I believe that so long as there’s a secular alternative available, we ought to allow individuals who we’re helping to be able to choose a program that may be run by a faith-based program.”
Indeed our nation does need the assistance of faith-based organizations in the effort to give a helping hand to our needy fellow Americans. These organizations can bring a sense of passion to such programs that government cannot hope to provide.
While many House members have ardently embraced the president’s plan, it appears the Senate will face delays of up to a year while members study it. Both the Senate and House bills would provide new tax breaks to encourage charitable giving, as proposed by Mr. Bush, and would create tax credits to match the savings of low-income workers. Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) has reported that he hopes to introduce legislation within the next few months to expand faith-based participation in federal grant programs. The House version takes the additional step of addressing Mr. Bush’s plan to expand “charitable choice,” which permits religious assemblies to compete for government money under 10 programs, such as housing, job training, hunger relief, etc.
Some of my fellow Christian conservatives have expressed concern that the reception of government money will threaten the religious foundations of these programs since government typically wants to meddle.
Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, said, “If the government gives funding to religious groups, then it must oversee how the money is used and, we fear, how churches spread their message. That worry, coupled with the knowledge that Bush will not always be president and that one of his successors may have a far less favorable posture toward faith-based groups, causes many religious Americans grave concerns.”
Ken Connor, president of the Family Research Council, added, “The White House expected cries of ‘Wolf!’ from liberals, but didn’t know that religious conservatives, who are concerned that churches not be corrupted by government regulations or that objectionable sects not be rewarded, would raise so many doubts.”
I imagine Mr. Connor is right that the White House did not expect religious conservatives to be skeptical, but I think the result of the immediate suspicion will be to find common ground to jointly ensure that faith-based groups can participate in this program and that they can remain free to operate without fear of government interference. I truly believe that Mr. Bush and the leadership he has placed in the new White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives will faithfully protect the religious organizations that choose to participate in this program and will set up guidelines to ensure that future administrations do not overstep these bounds. Of course, it will be up to us — leaders of the American religious communities — to secure these safeguards.
While conservatives have expressed their concerns, the usual suspects on the left have blatantly criticized the program, arguing that it is no more than an unconstitutional government funding of religion. The Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Congress and other leftist organizations have said they will aggressively work to stop the program, asserting that religious groups will discriminate against those who adhere to different religious beliefs. And the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, has boldly stated, “This bill doesn’t have a prayer.”
However, John J. DiIulio Jr., head of the new White House office, says that those who claim the program will allow religious service providers to deny aid to nonbelievers are wrong. All groups that would receive aid under the president’s guideline would be compelled to obey the law against discrimination.
“Compassionate conservatism warmly welcomes godly people back into the public square while respecting and upholding without fail our wise, benevolent constitutional traditions governing church, state and civil pluralism,” Mr. DiIulio told a Dallas conference of the National Association of Evangelicals.
I fully agree that it is high time that faith-based institutions in our nation be given a chance to reenter the public square through the cooperation of our government. To discriminate against organizations simply because they embrace a religious point of view is simply wrong. President Bush’s effort is a noble one and I pray that the uncertainties about the program can soon be worked out so that participants will be guaranteed security against governmental invasion and our nation’s needy can gain ambitious new avenues of support and assistance.