Constitutionally Safe, Religiously Dangerous?
There are constitutionally safe ways for the federal government to aid faith-based groups. But at religion's expense?
President Bush speaks eloquently of the tremendously constructive role religion has played in American society throughout our history. He has made it clear that his "compassionate conservatism" intends to recognize and to encourage religion's vital role in society.
Last month, at the annual National Prayer Breakfast, Bush inspired the crowd with his fervent endorsement of our nation's religious faith. The remarks that elicited the most enthusiastic response were these: "My administration will put the federal government squarely on the side of America's armies of compassion. Our plan will not favor religious institutions over non-religious institutions. As president, I'm interested in what is constitutional, and I'm interested in what works. The days of discriminating against religious institutions simply because they are religious must come to an end."
Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.) recently praised Bush's idea of promoting faith-based organizations. President Bush, Lieberman said, had "seen firsthand the extraordinarily good works these non-profits often do."
And yet the president's Faith-Based and Community Initiatives program has generated significant criticism. What about the plan is so controversial? For Christian conservatives, it is this: government oversight. If the government gives funding to religious groups, then it must oversee how the money is used--and, we fear, how churches spread their message. That worry, coupled with the knowledge that Bush will not always be president and that one of his successors may have a far less favorable posture toward faith-based groups, causes many religious Americans grave reservations.
With appropriate safeguards, I believe faith-based initiative programs can be done in ways that pass constitutional muster. I further believe the resulting increase in faith-based initiatives will help many people not being reached by government programs.
So I support constitutionally safeguarded faith-based initiatives with this sobering warning to all faith-based ministries: Partnering with the government in this way will increase your exposure to government intervention in your ministries. Is working with the government to obey our biblical mandate to help the poor, the hungry, and the hurting worth that exposure?