Taxpayer money doesn’t belong within churches

Freedom New Mexico

It is widely acknowledged that President Bush’s program of what he called faith-based initiatives — supplying government grants to religiously based organizations performing social service activities the government approves — has been something of a dud.

Two former officials of the program, former Princeton professor John DiIulio and David Kuo, resigned and wrote books critical of the effort — for handing out only token grants calculated for political effect rather than disinterested help to people in trouble, and for cynically manipulating the emotions of religious people to garner their political support.

It is more than passing strange, then, that presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama has proposed not to shut down this flawed program, but to expand it. For many of the same reasons that President Bush’s initial program was misguided, however, Sen. Obama’s proposal deserves severe criticism as well.

Most discussion of the idea has centered around the danger of entangling church and state, and this danger is worth considering. The most important problem with such a program, however, is the danger that it will undermine the religious character of recipient organizations, turning them into mere conduits for tax money delivered to politically favored groups and programs.

Sen. Obama claims his proposal would get around the problem of tax money being used to subsidize religious activity by specifying that government grants would be used only for secular programs, and could not be used for sectarian or proselytizing activities. In addition, recipients of federal money would be subject to government rules regarding discrimination in hiring and provision of services.

From the standpoint of government policy — beyond the apparently minor problem that the U.S. Constitution gives the government no specific authority to redistribute money or provide secular or faith-based welfare services — such requirements are inevitable.

When the government hands your tax money to a private organization, it should demand some level of accountability and conformity to government policies.

Such requirements, however, can impose severe paperwork burdens of a kind that smaller churches and organizations, which often provide the most effective programs targeted at locally identified needs, would find onerous.

And they carry the danger that programs initially designed to meet community needs would be tailored to bureaucratic requirements composed thousands of miles and metaphorical worlds away from the real problems of local communities.

Providing government money to faith-based organizations is superficially attractive because of the widely acknowledged fact that local religiously based charitable activities almost always provide more bang for the buck than government programs.

Often, however, such programs are successful because they operate on the assumption that helping others goes beyond providing food or a bed — that deeper spiritual needs that can be filled only by acknowledging reliance on God and changing one’s life must be addressed.

Government programs that prohibit such spiritual counseling as proselytizing could change the very character of faith-based programs that make them successful.

Thus the more subtle danger, far more significant than the likelihood that under an Obama administration funding would be likely to flow away from conservative evangelical organizations to more liberal religious institutions. It is that religious organizations could become mere appendages of the government and lose their distinctive religious character.

The First Amendment and the concept of separation of church and state are important not only to prevent government from promoting specific religions, but to protect churches from government control.

An aggressive program aimed at funneling tax money to faith-based organizations will subtly undermine the independence of recipient religious organizations.

It might be constitutional, but it is bad public policy.