Government subsidies for charitable activities may cost churches their souls.
June 1, 2000
by Michael Horowitz
"Government can spend money, but it can’t put hope in our hearts or a sense of purpose in our lives. That is why, when confronted with need, government should look to faith-based organizations, charities, and community groups that have shown their ability to save and change lives. We should make a determined attack on need, by promoting the compassionate acts of others. And we will rally the armies of compassion in our communities to fight a new and different war against poverty and hopelessness, a daily battle waged house to house and heart by heart.
Vice President Gore, too, recognized the unique role played by faith-based groups, in a speech given in Atlanta, Georgia: “[I]n those instances where the unique power of faith can help us meet the crushing social challenges that are otherwise impossible to meet—such as drug addiction and gang violence—we should explore carefully tailored partnerships with our faith community, so we can use approaches that are working best.”
Extending the Great Society
Amid the cheering, however, little debate has taken place over the dangers the government grant process poses to the independence of religious institutions. Few advocates of federal aid to faith-based institutions have acknowledged the risk that the availability of federal grants would make Washington lobbying skills a prime qualification for church leadership. Few have considered whether significant federal support would make church members less willing to give of their money, passion, and time. Few have understood the implications of inevitably large election-year grants to black and Evangelical churches—a truly insidious form of public financing of politics. Few have seriously allowed for the possibility that the voluntary, self-financed character of faith-based organizations may be crucial to their success.
To understand why such a discussion is crucial, consider the record of Great Society grants to secular nonprofit organizations. The success of programs run by those groups was a decisive basis for enacting the Great Society. Yet today, few mistake the government’s Great Society “partnership” with nonprofits as a collaboration between equals. Rather, many nonprofits have become dependent on federal funds for their very survival, and they have become sophisticated Beltway lobbyists against efforts to cut back federal grant programs. As these are root causes of the politicized and ineffective federal antipoverty programs of which Messrs. Bush and Gore complain, it would be catastrophic if churches developed a similar dependency on government. In Yale professor Stephen Carter’s perceptive formulation, we need separation of church and state—not to protect us from religion, but to protect religion from us.
Thus, the crucial question: Is it possible to devise federal programs that would both support the good works of America’s churches and protect them from dependency and capture by the federal government? The answer is a qualified yes, based on three principles.
First, federal support for religious organizations should rely as much as possible on the tax code rather than grant programs. In other words, the government should concentrate on tax breaks and credits for charitable contributions by individual taxpayers. This would allow private donors, not federal agencies, to evaluate the work of faith-based groups, limiting government’s role to certifying eligibility. It would also free religious organizations from the year-by-year need to lobby and appease government agencies and officials.
Second, government should never regulate, dilute, or diminish the religious character of the work of such organizations, though it has tried on several occasions. On his official campaign website, Governor Bush cites the following examples of government regulations that have forced certain religious organizations to curtail their charitable outreach programs, leaving many in need:
On September 24, 1998, the U.S. Department of Agriculture notified the Salvation Army’s Adult Rehabilitation Center (ARC) in Nashville, Tennessee, that it could no longer act as a food stamp agent, making low-cost, bulk purchases on behalf of the center’s residents, because ARC was not certified as a “treatment center.” Although the center protested that it was technically a church and provided no medical treatment, USDA forced it to withdraw from the food stamp program. The resulting increase in food costs has forced the center to curtail other services.
In 1997, the Raleigh Rescue Mission, which ministers to the homeless by providing shelter, Bible study, and chapel services, decided not to apply for a grant under the North Carolina Emergency Shelter Grants program, administered by the Department of Housing and Urban Development, because HUD regulations require these activities to be provided in a non-religious manner.
Federal grant programs should always offer secular alternatives, so that people eligible for government services have the freedom to choose religion-free programs. But the government has no business secularizing religious organizations, whose mission to aid the poor is driven by a central element of their faith.
Third, when the government does make grants to religious organizations, it should pay only for the direct cost of providing services to the poor, not the overhead of basic organizational expenses. By making such payments to nonprofit organizations, Great Society programs have created powerful dependencies. If a church needs its overhead grant to cover half the heating bill or a third of the minister’s salary, how will it resist terms dictated by government agencies?
Politics of Faith
Given those principles, Governor Bush’s position contrasts sharply and favorably with the Vice President’s. Under the Bush proposal, three-fourths of federal support for faith-based organizations would come from tax deductions and credits. Under Mr. Gore’s plan, by contrast, every penny of federal aid would take the form of discretionary grants to church groups favored (for the moment) by government agencies. Governor Bush favors carefully expanding faith-based social services, while Vice President Gore’s plan poses real threats to the independence of America’s religious institutions.
While Messrs. Bush and Gore agree that secular alternatives should remain available, they differ sharply in their attitudes toward the independence of faith-based programs. Governor Bush has pledged to create a White House office reporting directly to the president “to ensure that charities are not secularized or slighted.” The Vice President, on the other hand, would in fact explicitly regulate churches by barring “direct proselytizing” and mandated participation in religious observances. These restrictions would be open invitations to government agencies to pressure religious institutions into secularizing their charitable programs.
Finally, Governor Bush has made support of faith-based programs a central element of his public record, doing so through collaborative projects, voucherized welfare services, and initiatives to protect religious institutions from bureaucratic intrusion. “No political leader has used the bully pulpit more effectively to give religion a central role in reversing cultural decay,” said Joe Loconte of the Heritage Foundation. Under Governor Bush’s leadership, Texas became the first state in the nation “to permit a state prison unit to be operated by volunteers from a church ministry. The voluntary InnerChange Freedom Initiative offers round-the-clock Christian education and training to inmates and aims for nothing short of inmates’ moral and spiritual transformation.” The Governor even “thwarted an attempt by state bureaucrats to shut down a nationally recognized faith-based drug and alcohol treatment center in San Antonio called ‘Teen Challenge.’” These examples represent only a fraction of his quite dramatic efforts to improve Texas’ social infrastructure by using initiatives spearheaded by religious groups.
Nothing remotely comparable can be found in the Vice President’s twenty-three-year record as an elected official. When he spoke on the subject to the Salvation Army earlier this year in Atlanta, his senior policy adviser, Elaine Karmack, remarked, “The Democratic Party is going to take back God this time.” It’s hard to escape the conclusion that the Vice President’s support of faith-based programs is a matter of political calculation. Mr. Gore, who had given $353 to charity in 1999 on an income of $197,729, concluded his Atlanta speech with an ironic lament and a chilling pledge: “For too long, faith-based organizations have wrought miracles on a shoestring. With the steps I’m announcing today they will no longer have to rely on faith alone.”
There’s a lesson in all this for those infuriated by today’s church-state jurisprudence, many of whom have sought a mandate “simply” requiring the government to treat religious organizations as it does all others. Such a mandate would not decrease the federal government’s power over the nation’s religious organizations; it would almost certainly increase it vastly. The Vice President’s proposal should serve as a wake-up call, for he offers a troubling version of church-state reform—a commitment to extend the heavy hand of the Great Society to religious organizations by using tax money to “take back” God for his political party. The health and independence of our churches, and America’s well-being, require outright rejection of that dangerous offer.
Michael Horowitz was a Senior Fellow at Hudson Institute until 2012.
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