A Not-So Charitable Choice?

Series: Window on the World

by Phil Ryken March 11, 2001

They finally noticed. The politicians finally recognized that the church is able to do something that government has never been able to do, and that is to develop poverty and addiction recovery programs that actually work.

This explains why, during his first months in office, one of the main items on President George W. Bush’s agenda has been to promote Faith-Based Initiatives. The President’s goal is to allow religious groups to receive federal funding for the vital social services they offer to the poor and needy. Toward that end, he has established a new White House Office of Faith-based and Community Initiatives, headed by Philadelphia native and University of Pennsylvania professor John J. DiIulio.

Tax dollars already go to secular organizations to pay for after-school care, drug treatment counseling, hunger relief, and other programs. However, complex federal regulations generally inhibit religious organizations from getting funding for which they are otherwise eligible. The President’s new office will help religious charities obtain billions of federal tax dollars by reducing regulatory obstacles to their participation. His overall plan also includes larger tax deductions for Americans who make regular contributions to charity.

The stated objective of the new program is to combat poverty, addiction, and homelessness. In the words of our President, “This is one of the most important initiatives that my administration will implement. There are deep needs and real suffering in the shadow of America’s affluence. We are called by conscience to respond.”

The President’s reasoning is sound: faith-based programs work. Although as yet no scientific study has proven their superiority, there is evidence that they are more effective than most federal programs, some of which hardly work at all. To cite just one example, Teen Challenge achieves a remarkable 80% cure rate for teenage drug addicts. The reason is that the ministry gives students a life-changing encounter with Jesus Christ, and then instructs them in biblical principals for Christian living. Ultimately, social problems are always spiritual problems, which means that they find their best and fullest solution through the power of God, which provides “everything we need for life and godliness” (2 Pet. 1:3).

Predictably, the President’s plan has met with a good deal of opposition on the grounds that it violates the Constitutional separation of church and state. Apparently, some people think that in order to protect itself from the dangers of religion, the government must actively discriminate against Christian charities. Because of this challenge, White House officials have tried to emphasize that federal dollars will not be used for evangelism. In the words of one spokesperson, “This will not be funding religion. It is not the religious aspect of what they do that is getting funding, it is the community service aspect. These are not going to be programs that preach religion, these are faith-based programs that help people improve their lives.”

The problem, of course, is that preaching religion is exactly what makes faith-based programs so effective. If they are to continue to be effective, then they must have the freedom to proclaim Christ. If the state wants to capitalize on the church’s success in providing social services-as well it should-then it must leave the religious basis for providing those services intact. In the case of Christian organizations, this means having the freedom to present Jesus Christ as the answer to life’s deepest needs.

The danger is that public concern about the separation of church and state will force Christian charities to compromise their mission. Federal funding rarely comes without strings attached, and it is important for Christian organizations-especially churches-to be cautious. I doubt, for example, whether Tenth would ever consider accepting U. S. tax dollars for its mercy ministries, unless somehow we could guarantee the total integrity of our presentation of the gospel. One possible solution might be to grant tax credits to citizens who make donations to approved programs. This way the federal government could support effective charitable work without making direct subsidies to religious organizations.

The situation is somewhat different for independent ministries than it is for churches, but it is still wise to be cautious. Money never comes without temptation. Faith-based ministries always seem to be short of funds, and sometimes we dream about all the things we could do, if only we had more money. That is why some Christian groups are already mobilizing to apply for federal funds. But in my experience, God’s work never lacks for God’s supply. However useful it may be, money is among the least important resources needed for spiritual work, and it is important not to let the promise of money get in the way of sound principles for ministry.

Another difficulty with Faith-Based Initiatives is that the government is unable and unwilling to discriminate between Christian and non-Christian agencies. This means that in addition to supporting Christ-centered organizations, federal tax dollars would also go to non-Christian charities like Islamic mosques and even cults such as the Rev. Sun Myung Moon’s Unification Church.

The President’s new Faith-Based Initiatives are likely to be a mixed blessing. It is wise for the government to acknowledge the effectiveness of the church, and to seek to assist Christian charities any way they can. For their part, Christians should be quick to point out that when it comes to America’s most difficult social problems, the state is unable to do what the church can do. The new initiative really amounts to an admission of that federal failure. However, Christians should also be cautious about becoming the social service arm of the state. When the government offers to help, it is not always wise to accept.

[Information for this Window on the World comes from a January 29 news report from CNN and from John J. DiIulio’s column in the February 14 issue of the Wall Street Journal: “Know Us by Our Works: Give faith a chance to society’s problems”]

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