The Common Good
May-June 2001

Eyes on the Prize

by Jim Wallis | May-June 2001

Will witches, cults, and strange religions soon get taxpayers' dollars?

In the short period since the new White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives was established, most of the nation has learned the meaning of a new term—FBO, which stands for "faith-based organization." Until recently, most of those working out of local churches and religiously affiliated organizations to solve the problems of poverty and violence didn't even know they were "FBOs."

But despite the flurry of news headlines and media stories, much of the public is still confused about the issues at stake in this discussion of religion and public life. We have been bombarded with both polemics and fear, from the Left and the Right, when what we need is a healthy debate about how new civic partnerships between FBOs and government on all levels should and should not be forged.

We have heard alarming predictions of how the wall of separation between church and state is about to be torn down, or of massive secular conspiracies to discriminate against the religious. Some say churches will have to deny their faith to receive public funds, and others claim overzealous evangelical groups would use government money to proselytize Jews or vulnerable homeless people.

We're either about to turn into a theocracy, if you listen to critics on the Left, or into a government that refuses to let church groups help the needy because of "Christophobia," if you heed the charges from the Right. Will witches, cults, and strange religions soon get taxpayers' dollars? Will effective church-related programs be strangled by government bureaucracy? Will government abdicate all its responsibilities and leave hopelessly under-resourced churches and charities to fight poverty on the cheap by forcing them to make bricks with straw?

In all the controversy, we're in danger of losing sight of the poorest and most vulnerable children, who desperately need some new solutions. And we are trying to resolve every question at either the theoretical level or in the worst-case scenarios, instead of joining together to work out honest and sometimes difficult issues on the ground, in relationship to the actual programs that are already serving people in critical ways.

Three important questions should be kept at the center of this debate. The first is about church and state. The most important thing here is that public funding be for public purposes, that only the social services of faith-based organizations be supported by tax dollars, and not their religious or proselytizing efforts. It's not impossible to separate that out, despite the claims of some critics—we've been doing it for years. Billions of federal dollars have gone into overseas relief and development efforts through faith-based organizations such as Catholic Relief Services and World Vision. Here at home, large public funding has supported the work of Catholic Charities and Lutheran Social Services, among others.

The 1996 charitable choice legislation was designed to make faith-based partnerships more acceptable, to protect the religious identity of FBOs, and to encourage middle-sized and smaller FBOs to compete without discrimination for existing public funds in areas such as welfare reform. A bill to expand charitable choice was introduced in March; the vitally important debate on the question should lead to broadly acceptable ways of effectively utilizing faith-based organizations while protecting the First Amendment.

Most religious groups—including mainstream evangelical groups like the National Association of Evangelicals and World Vision—accept the principle of church-state separation and of funding social services only. It's clearly against the law and the Constitution to fund directly the religious activities of faith-based organizations, or for government to decide which groups are really religious. Most Americans are religious but want to live in a religiously pluralistic, democratic, and tolerant society, as the recent Public Agenda/Pew Charitable Trusts study "For Goodness' Sake" discovered. We want the government to help faith communities serve the common good, not to promote their religion.

The second critical question concerns the role of government. George W. Bush has said that faith-based efforts cannot "replace" the role of government, and John Dilulio, head of the new White House office, has reiterated that government is still responsible for the big structural issues such as Medicaid for poor kids, health care for the uninsured, education, and housing policy. Grassroots projects can't provide a social safety net for the whole society.

Whether this administration will keep those promises will become evident in how its policies impact poor people. It will become clear in who most benefits from tax cuts, in the details of the federal budget, and in whether the crucial supports that low-income families need are included in the 2002 welfare reform reauthorization funding.

The third question concerns the faith community's prophetic voice. Will partnership with the government mute or magnify the religious community's advocacy of social justice? Governments will invite the programs of faith-based communities because many of these programs work very well. But political power will not easily invite the prophetic voice of those same communities. Our response should be this: You don't get our programs without our prophetic voice.

MANY LIBERALS so distrust Bush and the Republican Party's commitment to reducing poverty that they are resisting the faith-based initiative, seeing it merely as a deceptive way to shift the burdens of social welfare without providing the resources to carry it. Meanwhile, some conservatives support faith-based initiatives only because they see it as an alternative to responsible public spending policies, while others are looking to support their favorite religious ministries. But there is another way.

First, we should support faith-based and other community initiatives at the grassroots level precisely because they have such great potential to help kids and families escape poverty. Second, we should do it only in ways that keep social services and religious activities separate. Third, we should insist on partnership between FBOs and government, rather than replacement of one by the other, and not allow anybody to abdicate their responsibilities. Fourth, we should seize the moment as a prophetic opportunity, rather than just a danger. With all the attention on faith-based organizations, it may be the best time to speak the biblical language of both love and justice. While doing our work of love in neighborhoods across the country, we can and must also make the demands of justice known to those in power.

When the administration seeks to remove environmental protections or curtail workplace-safety regulations, we need to be strong and consistent in our opposition. When curbs on C02 emissions are rejected or protections against arsenic in drinking water are weakened or bombs dropped on Iraq, our voices must be among the loudest in defense of nature and health and peace.

Already, Catholic Charities has opposed the Bush administration's tax cut proposal as unjust. The new Evangelicals for Fair Taxes has emerged to make the same point. And many faith-based organizations will be pushing the administration to make its proposed $1,000 child tax credit refundable, so that low-income families that don't make enough to pay income taxes also will benefit. If the same faith-based groups the president lifts up now press him to help the very people they work with every day, what can he say—that they are not worth listening to?

Many of us who know John DiIulio (whom I interviewed for this issue) trust his commitment to our nation's poorest children. DiIulio says he believes that President Bush really wants to accomplish important things through the new initiative. It could be the most important action of the Bush administration, or a largely symbolic and even deceptive effort that fizzles in the face of other priorities like tax cuts. We shall see.

But whether you trust Bush or not, the faith-based initiative can be supported and used to raise the most important issues of biblical justice to the very administration that has proposed the initiative. That approach would begin to move us beyond Left and Right and, most important, focus us all on the real goals of overcoming poverty for our poorest children. As Brenda Girton-Mitchell of the National Council of Churches said in response to Dilulio's speech at the Call to Renewal Summit, "Let's not wait and see; let's work and see."

Jim Wallis is editor-in-chief of Sojourners.

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