Debasing Faith 

Bush's idea may be good for government, but what about churches?

Bush's idea may be good for government, but what about churches?

In the early 20th century, the Canadian government decided to force the aboriginal people living within its borders to assimilate into the European culture. The policy required developing residential and non-residential schools for the children of the native Indian population.

But Canada is a lightly populated country with an immense land area. Carrying out such a policy required a much greater presence in remote areas than the government of Canada was able to muster. The government then turned to what George W. Bush would call "faith-based institutions" to implement a policy in places too remote for even Sergeant Preston of the Mounties and his dog King to reach. The leading churches already had missions in the remote areas and were structured for just the kinds of activities the policies required.

It turned out to be a good deal for the government, but less of a blessing for the faith-based institutions.

Canada's four largest church denominations are currently in court threatened with bankruptcy after participating in what Canadians ultimately came to consider an abusive policy. Damage claims far exceed the paper assets of the churches, which a Canadian court has ruled are responsible for 60 percent of the harm (as opposed to 40 percent to be paid by the government). While the churches have some culpability for brutal excesses beyond those inherent in a bad policy, many are bitter and feel they have been left holding the bag for a changing political consensus.

It is a lesson that Nashville churches may want to consider as they are led into temptation with the promise of new government resources to help them expand their charitable missions. The real value of keeping a wall between church and state is to protect the church—both from an intrusive state and from the things the church may do to itself by rendering too much unto Caesar.

President Bush's proposal to allow "faith-based groups" to receive federal contracts for social missions has touched off the usual knee-jerk responses from the usual knee-jerk respondents about undermining the establishment clause of the First Amendment. While they may have a point, it is a fairly tedious one. It is also a philosophical point that pragmatic, results-oriented people wish they wouldn't raise every time the opportunity comes up, just for the sake of reminding everyone that they're around.

The underlying thought behind Bush's proposal is that churches and other religious organizations currently run many effective social programs, and these programs frequently do a better job than existing government efforts. These programs are, however, constrained by the resources of their sponsoring organizations. If the government were to add its support, many of these programs could grow and help more people. There is a surface plausibility to this line of thought, and Al Gore made a similar proposal in his presidential campaign.

Many churches already provide government-funded social services, although these now must be run in a nonsectarian way. Thus, a church can get government funding to run a soup kitchen, but not if recipients must say grace as a condition of getting fed. Under the Bush proposal, the soup kitchen could get bigger and organizers could say grace before ladling out the soup. Bush says that for a program with religious requirements to receive funding, there would have to be a nearby secular alternative.

There are programs run by private organizations that are good comprehensive responses to difficult problems. There are also programs that are merely ameliorative—soup kitchens only cure hunger for a few hours, but that is still a great thing if you are hungry. There are private programs that, frankly, are not successful—and these are frequently the most superficially popular.

From the government standpoint, there are two major problems that the Bush proposal must overcome.

One is scale. Churches or other community groups may be excited that the availability of government funds will make it possible to grow their programs and help more people. The risk is that bigger may not necessarily work better. The program may be dependent on a single charismatic leader who may become stretched too thin. The organization may lack the internal infrastructure to manage a larger program. The rush to expand may result in recruiting more participants who would be better served in a different type of program.

The other challenge from the government perspective is efficacy. Some of the private programs offered are good; others are less good. Government has a difficult time making those distinctions. Bush, the first MBA to be elected president, would do well to apply here the same biz-school methodology he proposes for education and focus on measurement and accountability. But, with many social problems, measurement is a difficult matter. Is sobering up a substance abuser for six months a partial success or a total failure? Is placing a work-resistant welfare recipient in a dead-end part-time job a success or a failure? Beyond that is the question of political will for accountability. Will the government shut off grants to a large, powerful church when the assessment methodology shows its program isn't working?

These kinds of questions are legitimate to raise, but they aren't of sufficient magnitude to criticize the Bush initiative as a bad idea. These are problems that won't occur in every instance, but they are perils that must be considered in all cases. If the programs are successful, we all should rejoice and not give too much of our lives over to the hand-wringing concerns of the civil libertarians. But the risk in a political administration is that demonstrable failures are never called as much, and good money gets thrown after bad.

But the more interesting question is, what's in it for the sponsoring organizations? When churches take on social missions, they do so because they want to benefit the community at large and because it is good for the spiritual development of the church participants. That's different from the spiritual consequences of becoming just another federal government contractor. As the program gets larger and the share of funding that comes from government sources grows, the program becomes less of a community ministry and more divorced from the congregation that sponsored it. While a church may feel confident that it still is contributing the goodness of its intentions, it should worry that its goodness is becoming more thinly spread.

Moreover, by joining hands with government, a church gets caught in the inevitable political infighting and competition for resources that accompany any growing government program. The relationship makes the church become less like a church. It also means it falls victim to the changing fashions in government about the right kind of solution this year to the permanent intractable problems.

The real question about the Bush faith-based proposal is not whether it might yield good results. Although there are problems to overcome, it is certainly reasonable to expect that some programs will work well enough to be worth the monetary cost. The question is also not the constitutional question; we can build enough safeguards to prevent the birth of theocracy.

The hard question is whether such an embrace will be good for the churches—in terms of what it does to the spiritual nature of the programs or the lingering consequences for the churches. It is a question the churches should take a hard look at, for their own good and the good of the populations they already serve.

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