Faith-Based Initiatives and Strange Bedfellows

In previous threads on GWB’s “faith-based initiatives” plan, some posters have expressed the opinion that as soon as a non-mainstream, non-Judeo-Christian church received money to administer some program, the uproar would be heard. Turns out we didn’t even have to wait for a single dollar to be handed out.

Pat Robertson, Noted Christian, has already gone on record as opposing this program, because groups like the Hare Krishnas and Scientologists "“could all become financial beneficiaries of the proposal to expand eligibility for government grants to religious charities . . . This thing could be a real Pandora’s box. And what seems to be such a great initiative can rise up to bite the organizations as well as the federal government.” Even he acknowledged the irony, stating, “I hate to find myself on the side of the Anti-Defamation League and others, but this . . . gets to be a real problem.”

While there have been more than a few organizations expressing their zeal at getting their noses in the Federal trough, this plan has met with a lot of criticism from both sides. Liberals feel it amounts to government-sponsored and -endorsed religion; conservatives feel the government will begin telling them how to practice their religion and that fringe religions might get the money.

Is this baby going to be dead in the water? Does criticism like this, from the so-called Religious Right, spell serious trouble ahead for this initiative, or will Robertson be a voice in the wilderness ignored by the President he helped elect?

My guess: no, this is not going to do anything to stop the drive for faith-based initiatives and “charitable choice.” I just can’t believe that the people mentioned in the article—not just Robertson but noted conservatives like Marvin Olafsky, Michael Horowitz, and John DiIulio—helped put this whole thing together, accepted prominent roles in shaping or administering it, and have only now noticed that it might have some undesirable consequences. “Gracious, folks, maybe we’d better think this over!” Uh-huh.

I suspect that this is just a pause for deliberation, at least on the part of the Bush officials and advisers—Robertson is a loose cannon and I can’t really predict what he wishes or intends. But I think that concerns about “fringe groups” will in practice be addressed by quietly shunting them aside. Remember that “charitable choice” doesn’t guarantee any funds to religious providers of social services, it just enables them to compete for them. The following comments from a report issued last July by the Welfare Policy Center are, I think, rather illuminating:

“Wacky cults,” “incompetent and disreputable groups”—this writer at least seems to have a lot of confidence that the “normal”, “reputable” groups will have no trouble beating out the weirdos for any dollars that are going. I couldn’t say for sure that she would consider Wiccans or Buddhists or possibly even UU’s a “wacky cult” on the order of Heaven’s Gate, say, but there are sure to be many welfare funds administrators who will. Naturally, the mainstream-church service providers usually will be more qualified and better organized than the fringe affiliates, because they have more people, resources, and stability. But I’m sure that subjective perceptions of “weirdness” will also play a big, if low-profile, part in the selection process. In other words, government monies will be used to further strengthen the popular and “established” churches in our society and further marginalize the marginal ones.

Mind you, I’d be happy to believe that these demurrals you cite really mean that religious and conservative leaders overall are losing their enthusiasm for “charitable choice”. I can’t feel that carrying out the biggest transfer of taxpayer funds to religious organizations in our country’s history is really going to be very beneficial either for our society or our religious organizations. But I have a hard time believing that the people who have argued for this so long and vehemently are seriously considering abandoning it.

This baby will die faster than you can say Louis Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam. And don’t think his lawyers aren’t working overtime to not only cash in, but defend any challenges from conservatives who intended “faith-based” to mean “fundamental Christian”.

Dead in the water? Far from it. Still, it was inevitable that even people who MIGHT stand to benefit from government funding of faith-based programs might have second thoughts, and wonder about the strings that are ALWAYS attached when you accept tax dollars.

Now, strict Catholic Astorian does NOT automatically object to the idea of government grants to worthy programs run by religious groups he doesn’t support! If there’s a black Muslim mosque running a homeless shelter in its basement, I don’t mind if the city gives it some money. If there’s a synagogue running a food pantry for the poor, it won’t offend me if the federal government offers them some aid.

And what if the government gives money to Scientologists or the Moonies or the Wiccans? Well, that depends- what kind of social programs are the Scientologists, Moonies and Scientologists operating? Because, contrary to the scare tactics some groups are using, ANY religious social service organization that asks for government funding is going to have to demonstrate that its services provide some secular benefit for society at large. If your fear is that Louis Farrakhan or L. Ron Hubbard Jr. is simply going to stroll into the White House, demand money, and walk out with a blank check, you have nothing to worry about. ANY faith-based group is going to have to show the government what they’re doing, make a valid case that it’s a service worth funding, and provide proper accounting of how the money is spent.

I rather doubt that the Moonies, Wiccans or Scientologists offer any services that would pass that test… but if I’m wrong, and they DO have social ministries that benefit the needy, and can demonstrate fiscal responsibility, I don’t see a valid objection to funding their programs, either.

Now, Pat Robertson and other clergymen ARE quite right to wonder about the strings that are invariably attached to government funding. Karen Finley and Andres Serrano were naive (at best) when they expected taxpayer dollars without any accountability to the taxpayers. In ALL walks of life, he who pays the piper calls the tune. And, as Grove City College found out, when the government provides even the TINIEST modicum of financial aid, even indirectly, it assumes the right to dictate policy to the recipients.

So, who’s to say a future, liberal Democratic administration might not declare that…

  1. Since inner-city medical clinics run by the Catholic Church receive large amounts of federal dollars, the clinic MUST distribute free condoms to all children who come in, and must offer abortion referrals to any pregnant woman who asks for one.

  2. Since a group of homeless shelters run by the Baptists receives large amounts of federal dollars, the Baptists must ordain women.

    IF any religion-based charity accepts government funding, it must NOT become addicted to it. If a church-based program gets a government grant, it should treat that money the way it would a one-time inheritance from a wealthy parishioner. Other wise, the danger is that the church will become reliant upon a government whose policies and priorities could change (to their detriment) at any moment.

    In short, it’s not the government that runs a risk by funding church-based programs. It’s the CHURCHES that could be putting themselves behind the 8-ball if they aren’t careful.

Don’t you know that if they’re not “Christian”, they’re just a “cult” and not a “religion”?

I actually support Bush’s plan, presuming that it will be done on the same basis as past usage of government money by religious groups – only that part of their program which is charitable, (secularly) educational, civic, or whatnot and falls within the grant bounds of the government program may receive funds, and this must be documented. (Oh, and only that share of the group’s overhead which can be clearly documented as supporting the eligible program – if you run a mission that does GED tutoring in 20% of the space and 80% of the time of one man on the payroll, only 20% of the rent and 80% of the salary of the tutor are eligible.)

The “Baptists must ordain women” thingie is confuting a couple of laws that historically courts have been loath to bring together. IIRC, as a religious institution, you’re entitled to discriminate contrary to applicable civil rights laws on the basis of “legitimately held” belief. The Amish, for example, would not be required to provide the government with a telephone number where the program director could be contacted, as most other groups would.

But I would absolutely love to see some of the more liberal groups go for funding. Take “youth at risk” money, for example, and have the UFMCC start a program for improving the self-image of gay youth. (Matt_mcl has posted the statistics that would validate using the money for them enough times that I only need refer you to searching on his name and “gay youth” in the subject area.) Or how about a workshop on caring for the environment funded by National Parks Service and sponsored by a Neopagan group? Or something using anti-discrimination funding sponsored by the UUs?

I hope this passes, and Catholics for a Free Choice applies to get money. The idea of some of Bush’s money going to a pro-choice group amuses the HELL out of me…

astorian, without putting words in your mouth or jumping to conclusions, I’m wondering why you lumped Wicca with Scientology and the Moonies. The Moonies, from what I understand, are acknowledged by experts on cultism as being a cult (charasmatic leader, extreme isolation from mainstream society, etcetera). I’ve seen members of this board that I highly respect rake Scientology over the coals more than once. What aspect of Wicca puts it in the same category as the others?

I’m trying really hard not be all spastic and hostile. I suspect you’re just trying to make a point that, being a non-mainstream religion, Wicca is unlikely to be the first recipient of government money. If it’s something else, would you let me know?

He loves them not

He loves them

spinning even faster.

Also not wanting to put words into somebody’s mouth, I read this to be simply a small list of religious organizations to which Conservative Christians have and will object. I would also add to that list Catholic, Muslim, “New Age,” Hindu, and Zoroasterism.

I’ve always said to “prayer in school” folks: “Yes, I’ll agree that we should have prayers in schools, as long as you agree that that prayer should be the ‘Hail Mary.’”