The Lord's Bureaucrats and This Whole Faith-Based Initiatives Thing

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It must have seemed like a good idea in the small Texas town where it was incubated or considered. But it turns out the freshly innocent idea of giving churches money to do social service threatens to turn into an immense mess.

But what could be wrong in principle with giving extra money to institutions already committed to delivering vital welfare to needy people who are part of their community of concern? After all, for the longest time, churches were the most prolific and effective purveyors of daycare in the country, and were responsible for a cornucopia of often adventurous and almost always directly helpful activities that escaped many of the costs of the commercial or governmental interests competing with them. And if it was faith-based, so much the better, because the alternatives?linked either to profitmaking businesses or constipated bureaucracies?were less attractive and certainly far less lustrous. People who believe in something are obviously likely to pursue it keenly. The added extra inducement of taking part in the large pageant called religion should surely generate both energy and sound judgment.

Not so fast. The proposal clearly animated anxieties about at least two dramatic questions: "What's a religion?" and "Who gets how much money?" Governors of established outfits such as Pat Robertson mused warily about whether any group from Scientology to the Hare Krishna to the Farrakhan Collective could find benefit from the public purse and thus enhance what might now be a theologically marginal reputation, or even disreputation. Would the Amish, who have a perfectly effective web of social services, now be able to have these supported by taxpaying Catholics, atheists and Methodists? Was the notion "faith-based" really a stand-in for "church-based," and therefore relatively mainstream Christian?

At the same time, as Laurie Goodstein of the Times has reported, there appear to be sharp differences between clergy with dark skin who look forward to help with their considerable burdens, and those with light skin, who are more concerned that government meddling in their communal affairs will not be worth any amount of money. And even among dark-skinned clergy in New York City, there is concern that the faith-based initiative is camouflage for government withdrawal from providing traditional welfare. Otherwise, why change an ongoing system?

Let's leave aside the nontrivial issue of separation of church and state, because it is surely possible for people of good will to set acceptable limits on the links between churches and governments. Of course there are many already?such as those involving taxation or its absence. There is some prospect that rather than fight about who gets how much money and for what, if the program gets under way the various groups that qualify for assistance will cooperate to ensure that fairness is served and that no group achieves a special advantage because of its seniority, influential membership, ethnicity or skin color, political connections, or whatever.

This is by no means impossible. The initiative could produce an interfaith colloquium in communities that will serve everyone in good stead. If all the groups involved share a commitment to the value and power of religion, here could be a forceful source of social integration. But is it likely? In the mini-phone directory for the relatively homogeneous neighborhood in which this newspaper is located, there are 44 different groups defined as churches, and five synagogues. There happen to be no mosques in the area, at least not yet. The churches range from the Moonies to Byzantine Catholic to Evangelical Free to Roman Catholic to the Ocean Church on 8th Ave. Should all these entities qualify for federal funding as they presumably now qualify for tax status, are they likely to be in accord about what dollars they should get to serve residents of the same neighborhood? And we cannot forget that many faithful organizations are also evangelical. They are eager to gain as much constituency in any community as they can.

As much as religious organizations may broadly share a common source, the bitterly dolorous history of interreligious strife everywhere from the Balkans to Indonesia to Lebanon is not an automatic encouragement. Faith is by definition imprecise and conjectural. Almost inevitably it is a richer source of doctrinal and other disputes than if clear and defined issues of "market share" are in question. In fact, prudent social policy might well be to limit opportunities for religious competition rather than to set them in place and mandate them by legislation.

The initial grumblings of the likes of Pat Robertson, who represent large established groups, must indicate real concern that simply by being defined as a religious entity, otherwise marginal groups will secure social and financial status that more established folk might regard as unwarranted. When the seductive alchemy of voting blocs is added to the story, as in the Hillary Clinton enthusiasm for upstate Hasids whose leaders were jailed for stealing public money and who were pardoned by President Clinton, then the possibility is decisively enhanced for dangerous corruption of both religious and political groups. And when the business of tapping the public purse becomes an industry, the community runs the risk of raising up the Reverends Jesse Jackson and Jim Bakkers of the world, whose ability to manipulate public sentiment and tax exemption violates the very essence of religious meaning and standards.

All this may be dramatic enough. But far more significant for the quality of life of people involved in all this is utterly undramatic?in fact the opposite: filling in the forms. This is the time of year when countless people go through conniptions filling in a government form?the one that has to accompany paying money to the government. Consider how much more complicated would be completing a form to receiving money from the government. Anyone who works in a university or welfare agency or school board or similar well-meaning organization who has to apply to the federal government for funds knows with acute intimacy the seemingly endless and ramified data that are required.

There is an understandable need for the government to act fairly, and be seen to act fairly. This imposes enormous demands for information on those who benefit from its coffers. But the search for fairness and transparency can produce paperwork nightmares for everyone involved.

However thoughtful and skillful may be Dr. John DiIulio, who will run the program with his associates, it is almost inevitable that, for example, churches applying for money for a few staffers and some orange juice money for an afterschool program will find that they will have either to hire or train people to make the application. They will have to boast as much bureaucratic skill as the officials who will read and judge the paper they are sent. This may not turn out as badly as some commentators appear to fear. But it may. And for a government committed to reducing the role and size of its intervention in people's lives, turning active religious centers into bureaucratic beehives seems perversely inappropriate.

It's rethink time.

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