Subsidies May Cost Churches Their Souls
January 4, 2000
by Michael Horowitz
THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
December 16, 1999
The professions of religious faith Republican candidates offered in Monday's debate, and similar declarations by Vice President Al Gore, are welcome. They signal a break with an establishment theology that has rigidly secularized American public life. At the same time, they also bring into focus what President Clinton recently described as an "emerging consensus" in favor of massive federal funding of religious organizations offering help to the poor.
Mr. Gore and Gov. George W. Bush have played key roles in forging that consensus. In a series of speeches earlier this year, both described the hollow and failed character of many of today's federal antipoverty programs. Both now cite examples of how religious organizations have achieved extraordinary successes at solving seemingly intractable social problems. Both call for federal action to increase substantially the resources available to faith-based programs. Both have been widely acclaimed for doing so.
Amid the cheering, however, little debate has taken place over the dangers posed by the government grant process to the independence of religious institutions. Few 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 seriously allowed for the possibility the voluntary, self-financed character of faith-based organizations that is 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, 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 programs for religious organizations should rely as much as possible on the tax code rather than grant programs. 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. Federal grant programs must 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 "overhead" for 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?
Given those principles, Mr. Bush's position contrasts sharply and favorable with Mr. Gore's. Mr. Bush favors carefully expanded faith-based social services, while Mr. Gore's plan poses real threats to the independence of America's religious communities.
Under Mr. Bush's proposal, three-fourths of federal support for faith-based organizations would come from tax deductions and credits. By contrast, under Mr. Gore's plan every penny of federal aid would take the form of discretionary grants to church groups favored (for the moment) by government agencies.
While Messrs. Bush and Gore agree that secular alternatives must be available, they differ sharply in their attitude toward the independence of faith-based programs. Mr. Bush has pledged to create a White House office reporting directly to the president "to ensure that charities are not secularized or slighted." Mr. Gore, on the other hand, would regulate churches by barring "direct proselytizing" and mandated participation in religious observances. These restrictions are open invitations for secularizing pressure from government agencies.
Finally, Mr. 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," says Joe Loconte of the Heritage Foundation.
Nothing remotely comparable can be found in Mr. Gore's 23-year record as an elected official.
When Mr. Gore gave speech on the subject earlier this year in Atlanta, his senior policy adviser,
Elaine Kamarck, remarked: "The Democratic Party is going to take back God this time." It's hard to escape the conclusion that Mr. Gore's support of faith-based programs is a matter of political calculation.
Mr. Gore, who had given $353 to charity 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. Mr. Gore's proposal should serve as a wakeup call, for he offers a troubling version of that reform - a commitment to extend the Great Society to religious organizations and to take back God for his party with public funds.
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.