President George W. Bush has used executive orders to steadily increase federal funding to faith-based organizations, this year to the tune of $2.1 billion or about 11% of the $19.7 billion awarded last year to community groups. The Bush Administration’s director of the Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, Jim Towney, says “Government can’t fund preaching or proselytizing, but it can fund the good social work being done by religious organizations.”
Federal funding of faith-based programs is problematic. One could argue that such programs are operated by tax paying citizens and in many cases serve other tax paying citizens. Consequently, the people involved “have a right” to access funds they helped to create. Not only this, but one could argue as the Bush Administration does, that federal funding of faith-based programs reduces religious discrimination by allowing faith-based programs to qualify on the merits for federal support. In other words, no faith-based program is declined simply because it is religious.
But one could also argue that any governmental financial support for a religious organization violates the First Amendment’s injunction prohibiting government from establishing any religion. Generally, this is the viewpoint maintained by liberals or others advocating a strict separation of church and state.
But one could also say that federal funding of faith-based programs eventually, nay inevitably, entangles the program in governmental oversight undermining or disallowing the program’s religious character. When this happens, the federal government again violates the First Amendment, this time by preventing the free exercise of religion—paradoxically by supporting it. This is not a viewpoint generally proffered by liberals or strict separationists. This view is more often articulated by conservatives or other religious individuals who fear governmental intrusion in the mission of faith-based organizations.
In 2002, I was invited to a White House session on the Bush Administration’s faith-based initiatives. In the White House Office Building, President Bush spoke to perhaps sixty of us, people considered religious leaders, asking for our support of the initiative. Despite this personal pitch I have never been comfortable with federal funding of faith-based organizations. I would rather encourage more religious influence of public discourse—an easier mix of religion and politics—while reducing direct financial interaction of church and state. I like ideological interaction and institutional separation.
Federal funding of faith-based organizations begins with funding but eventually translates to influence, which in turn can translate to dependency on the part of the religious agency. First it accepts the funds, then it changes religious policy or practice to continue receiving the funds, and then it needs or cannot survive without the funds.
Policy changes to keep the financial gravy train rolling can include alterations of religious-based hiring practices or the suspension of proselytizing. In other words, the fundamental religious mission of the organization can be gradually secularized.
Finally, if federal funding of faith-based organizations continues, who determines which faith-based organizations are appropriate or acceptable? I am no more comfortable with the idea that some religious organizations or programs might be funded by my tax dollars than some of them may be if my religious organization or program is funded by their tax dollars.
This is a judgment call. I’m not criticizing faith-based agencies that accept federal funds, nor am I claiming their religious mission is always tainted. I think this is a decision each of them must carefully make.
I believe President Bush’s heart and motives are in the right place. But I do not think his faith-based funding initiative is good public policy.
© Rex M. Rogers - All Rights Reserved, 2006
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