George W. Bush, the Republican presidential nominee, says he believes in direct federal support of "faith-based" organizations affiliated with churches. This is a notion that some on the religious right have long advocated, and that has long made liberals and the ACLU squirm. Thursday night, in his acceptance speech, Bush praised the idea of public funding for faith-based action. Conservative religious groups are expected to be gleeful.
So why isn't Michael Horowitz happy? Horowitz is a prominent "movement" conservative and true-blue Republican, a former top Reagan administration policy official. He's a warm friend to the evangelical right--though Jewish, Horowitz has done more than anyone else to raise public awareness of persecution of Christians in China. But Horowitz is deeply apprehensive of the sudden push to offer tax funds to faith-based organizations.
"Once government starts funding religious activity, it opens the door to government influence over religion, for political lobbying about religion and even eventually church dependence on government funds," Horowitz says. "People in the faith world should be worried about this."
"We commit ourselves to aiding and encouraging the work of charitable and faith-based organizations."
Republican platform statement
Though praise for faith-based funding has been one of the trends of the year--President Clinton and Democratic nominee Al Gore have jumped on the bandwagon, too--Horowitz is not entirely a lone voice of skepticism. The Texas Faith Network, an interdenominational group of Christian and Jewish congregations, recently said it opposes faith-based funding, cautioning that the idea "could have devastating effects on the freedom of religion and the separation of church and state." Cal Thomas, the religious right columnist, said at a Philadelphia meeting this week co-hosted by Beliefnet and The Pew Charitable Trusts, that churches should avoid public funds because "the lure and allure of politics will become a corrupting force." Melissa Rogers, a lawyer for the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs, writes in the new book "What's God Got to Do With the American Experiment?" that acceptance of tax funds "will diminish religion's prophetic witness." And Richard Cizik, Washington director of the National Association of Evangelicals, though a supporter of faith-based funding, cautions that, "There is an obvious fear of political manipulation."
Here's a quick recap of what is at issue. Traditionally, the Establishment Clause of the Constitution has prevented public funding of most activities sponsored by religious organizations--the reason parochial schools almost never get government aid. Church-related philanthropies that did receive public grants, such as Catholic Charities or Lutheran Services in America, had to set up independent, entirely secular divisions for this purpose. About 10 years ago, courts began to say that in some cases, taxpayer aid could flow to organizations that were more openly "faith-based" if the funds were carefully targeted toward uses that parallel secular funding, such as education or social services. Congress took this concept national in 1996, with the Clinton administration's welfare reform bill. It contained a "charitable choice" provision saying government funds could be used to support faith-based groups that would help assist welfare recipients in moving into the world of work. The big change here, from previous law, was that the faith-based organizations could acknowledge their religious character.
Since the "charitable choice" rule was enacted, it has acquired many backers along with some determined opponents. Catholic Charities fought against the welfare reform legislation itself, fearing harm to the poor, but has since become an enthusiastic supporter of the bill's faith-based funding provision. Many evangelicals and some Muslims and Jews have endorsed the idea, asserting that federal social-service funds will be more effectively spent by faith organizations. Some religious groups, especially Orthodox Jews, also see faith-based funding as the lever that will eventually cause government to pay for their schools.
Many studies have shown that faith-based programs are, indeed, effective in addressing social problems. Religiously affiliated programs run by Christians, Jews, and Muslims have shown success at convincing teens to abstain from drugs and early sex; at increasing employment and reducing welfare dependency among the poor; at reducing family breakup and getting fathers to take responsibility for their children; and especially, at reducing recidivism among released convicts. Chuck Colson's Prison Fellowship Ministries has demonstrated particular effectiveness on the latter point. (For an article by the University of Pennsylvania sociologist John J. DiIulio Jr. summarizing the research on faith-based action and giving citations to the original studies, click here.)
But because publicly funded faith-based action--what's at issue right now--did not begin until after the 1996 law was enacted, so far there has been little research on its effectiveness. A study conducted by the Center for Public Justice found faith-based pilot projects under the 1996 law to be cost-effective, but there were too few pilot projects for the study to be conclusive. Another study conducted at Pepperdine University of a few
openly religious social-service organizations that managed to receive public funding before the new law found they had inconclusive records.
Flash forward to the current presidential campaign. Influential Bush adviser Marvin Olasky has been promoting a sweeping campaign of faith-based action as an alternative to government human-service agencies. This winter, candidate Bush proposed significant amounts annually in direct grants and tax credits to faith-based social welfare groups, and further said that as president, he would establish an "Office of Faith Based Action" in the White House. (See The Religion President by Steven Waldman.)
Seeing favorable poll numbers in response to the Bush plan, candidate Gore announced he favors faith-based funding, too, though with a "remove or cover" stipulation. While performing tax-supported work, religious organizations would have to put away or mask any crosses, stars of David, Islamic crescents, and so on. Gore also emphasized that any programs "must prohibit direct proselytizing as part of any publicly funded effort." (The charitable choice bill contains an anti-proselytizing rule.)
Proponents of the separation of church and state have been predictably displeased by the sudden popularity of faith-based funding. Their concern--that any involvement of tax money with religion will inevitably favor some faiths over others, or favor faith in general over secular morality--carries power. Horowitz's critique comes from the other direction. He sees direct government funding of religions "as a threat to the religions themselves."
Once government starts funding faiths, Horowitz fears, it will start imposing requirements and calling the shots. Religion could become like another federal bureaucracy, diluting the very things that make faith vibrant. (See "How Catholic Charities Turned From a Revered Institution Into an Arm of the Welfare State".)
Consider the non-proselytizing requirement. Obviously this is appropriate for any project spending public funds. But if a faith can't speak about what it believes, then is it a faith? A poll conducted at the University of Arizona found conservative Christian groups appear less likely than liberal ones to apply for government funds, apparently for this reason: They don't want to give up the freedom to tell their story.
Horowitz, whose policy specialty is analyzing social-service programs, has other concerns. When government starts funding religious charities in a major way, individuals may stop. The wealthy and business groups, traditional funders of charity, may cease writing checks and instead pressure and lobby members of Congress for appropriations. Individual giving will decline.
Politicians, in turn, will offer big grants to whichever faith constituents are most important to their re-elections. Imagine how excruciatingly awful the religious discourse in the presidential campaign would be right now if Bush and Gore were in a position to promise funding favors to various denominations, to say nothing of to Buddhist temples. Once politicians start doling out grants as plums to religions, the faiths in turn will be expected to praise incumbents, instead of saying whatever they really think. Could
American Catholicism be so free to be adamantly prolife--church figures often strongly criticize politicians on abortion and capital punishment--if a significant chunk of parish operating budgets were controlled by the White House? Religion could become just another special interest group.
On this point, Horowitz says he especially fears the specter of overhead funding. The standard overhead language of federal grants not only imposes requirements on the parts of the organization that does not receive support, but has a way of sneaking up on financial structures. "Today a church or synagogue taking its first taxpayer grant may think, what's the harm, if there turns out to be government intrusion, we'll just refuse future grants," Horowitz says. "They wake up in five years to discover that 30% of the minister's salary and 40% of the heating bill are federally funded, and they're afraid to walk away from that money, and meanwhile there's a government bureaucrat on the line saying, 'We'd like to discuss some of the comments you have been making during your services.'"
Cizik, of the National Association of Evangelicals, considers such concerns "real, but so far there's no evidence this happens." His organization has been performing refugee resettlement work for half a century partly under federal funds. The grants, he says, "contain a non-proselytizing clause that has never caused us any self-censorship problem." Cizik thinks faith-based organizations should concentrate on drawing up strict guidelines about how and when they would accept public funds, conduct trial runs, and simply be ready to withdraw on the first sign of government interference with beliefs.
In a nation that is the most religious in the industrial world, many might suppose it is unrealistic to caution that government funding could backfire by harming faith. But consider Western Europe.
In Europe, governments are openly pro-religious in ways inconceivable here. France is officially Catholic, England officially Anglican, Sweden all but officially Lutheran. Public money is routinely used for explicit religious purposes: In Germany, for example, local churches are supported not by donations from members but by a national church tax. And religious observance in Western Europe is stunningly low--just 10% of Britons regularly attend services of any faith, 15% of the French, fewer than 10% of Germans. (The comparable figure is about 45% here.)
It is not hard to imagine that one reason Western Europe shows so little enthusiasm for religion is exactly because government is involved--and in contrast, that one reason so many Americans are believers is that here, faith and government have almost nothing to do with each other. Horowitz shouldn't be alone in worrying: Do we really want to tamper with this?