This article originally appeared in the April 2007 issue of Sojourners.
WHEN DISASTER STRIKES, churches—from the conservative Southern Baptist Convention to the liberal United Church of Christ—are among the first to respond. However, as Katrina so painfully revealed, churches and charities—no matter how much they give—can't build levees (though neither, apparently, can the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers).
Many faith-based disaster relief agencies are using 9/11 and Katrina as stark comparisons of how government should—and shouldn't—respond to disasters. A May 2006 Urban League report highlighted the differences: "The state response was strong after September 11, and the nonprofit sector tried to work alongside the government as well as fill in the gaps the government left behind, both short and long term. With Katrina, in contrast, the immediate state response was weak, and the nonprofit sector had neither the organizational structure nor the resources to meet immediate needs."
In disaster relief, efficient, well-organized faith-based organizations work best as an adjunct to a strong, responsive, and accountable state. As of February 2006, the Salvation Army had raised $325 million in disaster relief for the Gulf Coast hurricanes—second only to the American Red Cross, according to the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University. And this doesn't include in-kind donations—such as the hundreds of church work crews that have headed with their hammers to the Gulf Coast.
However, in American churches a divide has opened up between those whose theological and political perspectives advocate for downsizing the role of government and those who promote a strong government, with laws and budget priorities that promote the common good. These ideological differences couldn't be starker than in the Bush administration's treatment of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. "Ideologically opposed to a strong federal role in disaster relief and obsessed with terrorism, the Bush administration let a once-admired agency fall apart," wrote Farhad Manjoo in "Why FEMA Failed."
In the 1990s, this well-respected agency responded to disasters—both natural and criminal—with effectiveness and efficiency. "[FEMA's] response to the Midwestern floods of 1993, the Northridge earthquake of 1994, and 1995's Oklahoma City terrorist attack are considered models of emergency response," wrote Manjoo. But Bush's ideological bent toward "limiting government" by pushing federal responsibilities onto the shoulders of state and local government meant that FEMA was defunded and downsized. FEMA lost influence, funding, and effectiveness when it needed it most.
THE GOAL OF the neoconservative political movement—and its theological counterpart in the Religious Right—has been "to cut government in half in 25 years, to get it down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub," as Grover Norquist, Bush's tax strategist, so eloquently put it in 2004.
This view has led much of the Religious Right to support draconian tax cuts that subvert the social safety net and government's role in promoting the common good. Under the guise of reducing "the number of people depending on government so there is more autonomy and more free citizens," as Norquist frames it and the Religious Right—especially James Dobson's Focus on the Family—echoes it, agencies like FEMA get downsized to shadows of their former selves.
Paradoxically, many neoconservatives who want a smaller government also want a larger military and have been strong supporters of Bush's disastrous foreign policy. The National Guard historically has been a key component in responding to domestic catastrophes. Sadly, when Hurricanes Katrina and Rita hit the Gulf Coast, roughly a third of the Guard for Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama were deployed to combat zones.
The best disaster relief models offered by churches or faith-based organizations are those that efficiently meet the needs of victims with both material and spiritual aid, work alongside government in effective partnership, provide services that are inappropriate for government to offer, such as spiritual nurture—but also advocate for justice in political structures to protect the most vulnerable.