The Bush administration has wisely decided to withhold submitting its bill to aid faith-based programs until it can revise the legislation to make it more acceptable to conservative religious leaders.
The administration had expected opposition from liberal groups, but not the level of resistance coming from conservative religious leaders and organizations who fear that inviting the government in will mean eventual government control of their message.
Historians have debated whether the Roman Emperor Constantine was seriously converted to Christianity in the Third Century, or if he merely found that faith expedient in the pursuit of his military objectives. He may have believed the Christians could be persuaded to serve in his army if they were freed from the catacombs and their faith declared not only legitimate but also the official state religion.
What the Christians may not have understood at the time was that whenever government smiles beneficently on their faith and extends benefits to adherents (as Constantine did by exempting the clergy and churches from paying taxes and allowing the church to own and inherit property), it eventually expects to be paid back in political currency.
Thus, Constantine expected the Christians to serve the state in his military and in official capacities. When many refused, persecution broke out.
Fast forward to last week. John DiIulio, head of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, told a group of Christian leaders in Dallas that social service programs which have religious conversion as the central tenet of their work will not be eligible for direct government grants. People in need of drug or alcohol rehabilitation, the homeless, or anyone else seeking their services, would be given vouchers. It would be up to the clients to choose where to "spend" tax dollars. They could select a program that feeds and houses their bodies, or one that does that but also feeds their souls and seeks to convert them.
Evangelical organizations have long asserted that the social services they provide are not ends in themselves. Rather, they see them as means by which to demonstrate God's love for them in this life, so as to make them more open to the "good news" of God's provision for assuring them of a place in Heaven when they die.
Evangelicals believe that faith without works is dead, but they also believe that works without faith are even deader.
If the objective of the Bush Administration is to provide financial help to people and organizations with the best chance to change lives because of the message they preach, giving vouchers to people who need help is not going to get the job done.
How many of the neediest are likely to seek assistance in places where they are required to hear sermons? If such people wanted to hear a sermon, they would have long ago sought out a church or a faith-based program. How many alcoholics or drug addicts, for example, will use their vouchers to seek spiritual help? Isn't it more likely that because of their addiction, they will seek programs that provide only food and shelter so that they might continue their addictive behavior?
Is the problem with charitable work a lack of money, or a lack of laborers? Even Scripture notes that while the "fields are white unto harvest," there appears to be a shortage of laborers. Is that because of too little government money, or too little base in the faith? Will more money solve things, or is it likely to produce a conservative version of the welfare state in which fewer laborers can be found because people will come to see the government as responsible for the work?
The best way for the government to be involved in religiously based charitable work is to make it easier for people who already are, or might persuaded to be. If government wants to encourage charitable works so it can reduce its own role, let it give additional tax breaks to individuals and companies. Then they can choose their own "faith-based" programs in which to invest. This puts choice in the hands of the donor, not the recipient, who may not make the wisest decision.
Government will then not have to discriminate among religions. People can. Any faith-based program that accepts government funds will, like the early Christians, be required to pay an even bigger price in the loss of their primary message.
Cal Thomas writes for Tribune Media Services.
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