Faith-based Initiatives: Just Say No

It’s hard to tell if Barack Obama and John McCain are merely clumsy in their attempts to appeal to religious voters, if they are cynically pandering to perceived religious sensibilities, if they are fuzzy-headed about religion, or if they have really good ideas about faith-based initiatives.

Obama’s statement on faith-based initiatives last week is causing me to back off and take a long, hard, skeptical look at him. If he’s pandering, he may not be what I thought. If he’s just clumsy about the risks associated with  faith-based initiatives, it isn’t a reassuring trait. And like a lot of other people I don’t think he’s come up with a more excellent way.

A faith-based initiative funded by the government is an oxymoron in the United States. Obama’s comments about having taught constitutional law don’t ease my concern.

Faith-based initiatives are something religious groups should look at carefully and with great reserve. They are a dangerous turn away from constitutional separation of church and state and toward entanglements that could be particularly harmful to them.

Do churches really want to get into a financial relationship with the government, subject themselves to program and financial audits by government auditors and become subcontractors for services that government ought to be providing anyway? See the IRS definition of partnerships here and ask if this is how you want your local congregation defined.

Do they want to set up and keep separate books to account for money and programs with all the attendant personnel needs and administration? Do they want to delineate when monies expended to repair the roof that houses a government-funded feeding program stopped where the shingles covering the worship sanctuary began?

Churches can easily support community groups organized to carry out community service and church members can provide the person power as volunteers to get the work done, but subcontracting services that government should provide has put us in the mess we’re in now with declining public schools, 50 million people outside the private health care system because they lack insurance and inadequate public transportation because government lived with blinders about our dependence on oil and did not step up to support research into alternative energy nor public transport.

In a pluralistic society in which religious expressions range from Scientologists, polygamists, snake handlers and dominionists who want to take over the government, do we want government to define what is distinctly religious in contrast to what is socially constructive and, therefore, acceptable for government funds?

If a church declares that its mission is “to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world,” as mine does, does it not follow that government-funded faith-based initiatives must tolerate this expression of faith, or the church must decide to hold in abeyance its mission at the behest of government restrictions?

The church has, in fact, accommodated to this neutrality by creating  organizations to carry out specialized work. So there is precedent. Entities constituted by religious organizations provide humanitarian services under contract to the government for processing immigrants, providing food aid, carrying out case management in disasters and many other humanitarian needs.

Under these contracts the services delivered are specific, non-sectarian and based on need. They are expressly free of religious conversation and the organizations are highly specialized and uniquely skilled at delivering social services.

Faith-based initiatives that extend beyond these constituted entities into congregational life at the grassroots level will create a more direct and intimate relationship between government and church, putting government funding and regulations into the halls of local congregations, synagogues, mosques or temples.

The risk is great. A faith community is first and primarily a worshipping and learning community. In my church community, worship and response to holy scripture, tradition and contemporary theological insight lead us to outward commitment to social justice, inclusive, democratic governance and concern for the common good.

When it is relevant, the church is an advocate for a government that includes all people and serves them equally but it is not a partner with government nor an agent of government. Our commitment is rooted in faithful response to a loving God, and this is not dependent upon, nor conditional to any form of governance. For us, justice is a biblical imperative.

Admittedly, we have not been nearly vocal enough in recent years about the deterioration of responsible government and have been far too quiet about the misplaced priorities that have led to spending vast amounts on war as federal and state governments cut back basic health, education and social services for those most vulnerable and at risk. But faith-based initiatives are no way to make up the difference.

We’ve already seen enough to know that the melding of religion and politics is a dangerous bond. We need look no further than the influence of the religious right on the current administration.

To preserve democratic society, theological integrity and constructive public policy our best response to faith-based initiatives is just say no.

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