When the government injects itself, and public money, into matters of faith, only bad things can happen. When money comes with strings (or in the government's case, ropes) attached, the best wisdom is to turn it down. Losing control of one's motives and one's work is a high price to pay for a bundle of public cash. Given the choice of having my church's soup kitchen cease operations or be forced to accept government funding to survive, I would choose the former. You cannot separate money, mission, and motivation.
Presidents Obama and Bush are both wrong. Public funding of “faith-based initiatives” is a terrible idea, fraught with ugly ramifications. Not for constitutional reasons, but for practical ones. Once a ministry accepts government money, it soon loses control of its destiny, its base of donors and volunteers, and its very reason for existence in the first place: as an expression of faith.
A coalition of humanist, religious, civil rights and labor groups signed a letter this week to US Attorney General Eric Holder urging him to revoke a 2007 Office of Legal Counsel memo asserting that faith-based organizations receiving tax-payer money have the right to practice employment discrimination on religious grounds. Of course, the letter included a criticism of President Bush's position in allowing faith-based groups to hire only those who share their own same faith motivation for doing the work among the poor or the hurting
When President Bush picked up President Clinton's fledgling idea of “faith-based initiatives,” he made a large, if well-intentioned, mistake. When President Obama announced during the campaign, and then began to implement once he was inaugurated, his plans to expand Bush's initiative and revise it, he added fertilizer and steroids to an idea that never should have seen the light of day.
Government funding inevitably leads to the juncture represented in this letter to Attorney General Holder, a letter signed by an strange amalgam of alphabet organizations like the AFL-CIO, the ACLU, the NAACP, NOW, and the NGLTF. Such groups insist that it is wrong for ministries funded in part by public monies to hire only persons sharing the faith of the organization that birthed and created the ministry in the first place. They may or may not be right, but their letter misses the point.
Faith groups perform works of service among those in need for a variety of reasons, but most often as an expression of their faith in God, the love they are taught, and the humility they seek to engender. Most faiths teach that all humans are made in the image of God and are therefore worthy of love and mercy. When a faith group offers a bowl of soup, it usually does so as an explicit faith act. “God has loved me, and in offering this soup to you, I share His love with you. You are valuable in His eyes. I love you.”
Faith groups operate for a reason. They love God and His people. While some government workers love people, governments by nature cannot and do not. Hence, government programs serve people but do not love them. There is a key difference.
When a faith group offers a bowl of soup, they offer more than food. Theirs is a gift not merely for the body, but also for the heart, mind, and soul. It is a wholistic offering. The government's offering again, by nature, is not.
In other words, the motives of a faith group are faith-based. When the government becomes involved, such involvement automatically revokes that faith motive. The motive is no longer welcome. In effect, the government says, “We want you to do what you do but not for the reason you presently do it. We want you to do it now on behalf of the people, or the government, rather than on behalf of God.” When that transition occurs, a ministry ceases to be a ministry and instead becomes a social service agency.
Social service agencies are helpful and important. However, they are not ministries. Ministries are true faith-based initiatives. Faith initiates the action. A secular government cannot initiate an action that is rooted in faith. Thus, Bush and Obama both have made a grievous error. Their ideas of a “faith-based initiative” is ultimately neither faith-based nor an initiative. Rather, it is just another soul-less government program done by volunteers who originally volunteered because of their faith and got hijacked in the process.
Worse, when you suck out the motive from a faith-based ministry, you suck out the personal investment its members make. Gifts of time and money slowly diminish because the members begin to look to the government rather than to themselves, God, or their faith organization for direction and purpose. Their sense of ownership, entrepreneurship, and personal investment slowly dissipate. Ultimately, what is left is a government program housed in the shell of a formerly faith-based group.
Finally, the injection of government funding into faith ministries creates a final, lethal dynamic. I am seeing this dynamic right now all over the country, and in my own state of Georgia. As government revenues decline in a recession, politicians immediately look to make spending cuts where they will get the least political pushback. In Georgia, this year, dozens of formerly faith-based groups that serve children in need, and especially children with mental health challenges, have closed. They lack funding as the state government eliminates its spending in this area because mentally challenged children do not vote nor do they have a loud voice. Other groups, like the Murphy Harpst Children's Center with whom I help, scramble to make budget cuts, and re-motivate sleepy donors who have grown accustomed to the government's source of funding only to discover that one who relies on the government may well die on the government.
The letter to Attorney General Holder is neither right nor wrong in and of itself. It merely points to the larger issue: faith-based initiatives that lose their missions, their funding, and their souls when the government comes knocking with an offering of funds with an array of strings attached. It is time for President Obama to do what President Bush did not: end the whole flirtation with “faith-based initiatives and community partnerships.” For everyone's sake.