Take it on Faith
By Henry (Hank) Goldstein
March 2001

George Bernard Shaw said it in Major Barbara: “Confession is a lying, nasty, habit,” and that’s just another reason federal funding for church-sponsored social and welfare services is a bad idea.

While we were all counting chads in Florida, churches morphed into “faith-based organizations.” Sure enough, the smell of money quickly attracted an array of religious “leaders” – to the President’s table – all of them prepared to be the king’s man to get the king’shilling. But when the Hare Krishnas and the Scientologists showed up to dine, the usual suspects on the religious right beat a hasty retreat. Dubya is soldiering on; having to read conscript to get your supper may yet await.

Since colonial times, all manner of religious organizations have provided alms and charity to the needy and the sick, and no doubt, grateful supplicants were happy enough to get down and pray it through. If personal belief in a Higher Power gets you over alcoholism, or your head out of the oven, wonderful. I have absolutely no objection as long as “gummint” has nothing to do with it, which if I understand President Bush correctly, is where things can go quite wrong.

Full disclosure requires me to explain that I serve on the national board of a faith-based organization, the Pacific Institute of Community Organizations (PICO), and have for several years. Its national network of 38 congregation-based organizations (mostly but not exclusively Catholic churches) helps poor people organize for community action, obtain government services to which they are entitled, and otherwise shake the tree.

Nowhere in the mix is anyone required to thump the Book as far as I know. Many do and many don’t. I don’t ask, and neither does PICO. It’s don’t ask. Don’t tell. The gross danger in the government’s intervention – keeping in mind that federal, state, and local funds have long flowed to religious institutions – is that a religious means test may be applied to the disbursement of taxpayer funds. That has a lot of people nervous, some of whom are religious leaders – a roster which now included people like Pat Robertson; some are secular humanists like me who are going underground for at least the next four years.

It is no secret that President Bush, along with several of the people around him, hold a specific view of the redemptive religious experience in American life. It excludes, Jews, atheists, agnostics, Unitarians, and anyone else who does not accept Jesus Christ as his or her savior.

The question is whether they are going to seek to impose their beliefs on the rest of us. Seems so, and that is the real agenda. By stirring the discriminatory faith-based initiative into the tasty charitable stew of itemized deductions for all, tax-free IRA gifts to charity, and charitable tax credits – the current recipe – we risk wrecking the historic wall erected between church and state. This was the genius of our founding fathers, hardly a cabal of the irreligious. As the inevitable First Amendment lawsuits trickle up to the Supreme Court, I am tempted to hope that the process will perhaps outlast this administration, or at least be definitively resolved at lower levels.

Beneath the all too apparent flaws in overtly funding religious institutions is an even more insidious idea – that somehow, or other, the private sector (of which churches are of course a part) can somehow replace government’s proper role in providing essential human services. We can be sure that federal funds for religious institutions will come at a steep discount from total need. Coupled with the possible repeal of estate taxes (perhaps less likely now than at the start of the new administration), and the mammoth reduction proposed in capital gains taxes – the impact of which on charities is at best uncertain – I can but marvel at the incoherence. Or perhaps not.

Community organizer and activist Fr. John A. Baumann, PICO’s executive director, summarizes the threat quite clearly. “My view of the church,” he says, “is that it is not in the business of taking on service programs that should be provided by government. There are problems in pumping money in to do this. First, getting and using money well. Second, control, and down the line that's trouble – government programs are not free. Third, government is not used to writing small checks, and many of these church-based programs are small. Churches can get into difficulty when they don’t know how to use government funds properly. Last, the money inevitably runs out. What then?”

Amen. So to speak.

Henry Goldstein is president of the Oram Group in New York. Click here to send an email.