Faith-based Initiatives

April 3, 2001

Mention public funding of faith-based organizations and you are likely to get a range of reactions. And many of the negative comments come from both liberals and conservatives as well as secularists and Christians. Disagreement with President Bush's faith-based initiatives does not easily fall along traditional political and spiritual lines.

Although certain aspects of President's Bush's proposals are controversial, the heated discussion of public funding actually obscures two categories of debate worthy of merit. Marvin Olasky is the man who coined the term "compassionate conservatism" and has been one of the architects of President Bush's faith-based initiatives. He believes we should carefully look at all three aspects of the faith-based initiatives.

First, is the chronic need for deregulation. Government will be charged with combing through existing laws and administrative rulings that prevent effective programs from being attempted by private initiative. Marvin Olasky pointed out that President Bush has already decreed that five different departments of government begin the task of "ferreting out regulations that harass religious groups, or are just plain stupid." This is a beneficial task that will no doubt shrink the size of government and make private-sector initiatives more effective.

President Bush already has seen the value of such evaluation when he served as governor of Texas. Teen Challenge was about to lose its license because they did not send their counselors through state-approved classroom training at a Texas university. Most of their counselors were ex-addicts or alcoholics themselves and weren't going to sit in secular classes to train them in an ideology contrary to a Christian perspective. Governor Bush and the Texas legislature removed that regulatory hurdle so that Teen Challenge could continue to treat addicts.

The second aspect of President Bush's initiative is tax encouragement. This minor revision of the tax code would allow one-hundred percent of taxpayers to deduct charitable contributions. Currently only about thirty percent of taxpayers are able to deduct charitable contributions because it is not worth doing financially unless they have a lot of other contributions to declare.

If you decide to send a check for $100 to a Christian center treating addicts and alcoholics, the federal government should credit you with a $100 deduction next year when you pay taxes. Only taxpayers who itemize rather than take the standard deduction presently can do so. President Bush wants to change this. Marvin Olasky also believes that a tax credit could be created for state income tax as well. Currently Arizona is the only state that has such a tax credit.

Businesses also could be affected. Companies can currently give ten percent of their profits to charitable organizations and write off those contributions. Congress may consider a bill that would raise that amount to fifteen percent.

The third aspect of President Bush's plan is the most controversial. Civil libertarians worry that public funding of faith-based organizations will tear down the wall between church and state and threaten the integrity of the First Amendment.

Conservatives and certain Christian leaders are concerned for a different reason. They believe that public funding will end up compromising religious organizations. With Caesar's coin comes the obligation to submit to Caesar's rules.

Pat Robertson says, "If government provides funding to thousands of faith-based institutions but, under a tortured definition of separation of church and state, demands in return that those institutions give up their unique religious activities, then not only the effectiveness of these institutions, but also possibly their very raison d'Ítre may be lost." Pat Robertson's other concern was that government grants would also go to groups like the Church of Scientology or Sun Myung Moon's Unification Church.

These concerns are certainly valid. News programs over the last few months have documented the impact federal rules and funding have had on faith-based organizations. Many of these horror stories could be eliminated by addressing the deregulation issue mentioned earlier, but many of the problems will remain. And if government begins to fund religious groups, all religious groups should be eligible, even if we might disagree with their theology.

One solution originally put forward was for government to only fund the part of a program that is not religious. In other words, as long as a faith-based organization can "compartmentalize or segregate" its "religious instruction or worship" it would qualify for support. Unfortunately, most organizations actually have the leaven of Christ mixed throughout its ministry dough. You simply cannot separate these ministry functions in most faith-based organizations.

The solution currently being proposed by Marvin Olasky is vouchers. Vouchers have been used for everything from buying groceries to paying for higher education. No one worries that the food stamp program is going to allow the federal government to compromise the policies of a grocery store. And the history of the GI bill shows that these educational vouchers can be used at religious institutions as diverse as Bible colleges (Moody Bible Institute) and Catholic schools (Notre Dame) without violating their religious integrity. The merit of this proposal will no doubt be discussed over the next few months.

Already the federal government funds religious groups like Catholic Charities and Lutheran Social Services. The current debate, however, is about vastly expanding government funding of faith-based organizations. The questions raised by liberals and conservatives, non-Christians and Christians are relevant. While the first two aspects of President Bush's faith-based initiatives have merit, the third aspect is more controversial and deserving of a long, comprehensive debate of the constitutional issues and the practical issues.