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Religious Groups Should Be Wary of Government Money
by J. H. Huebert

The Collegian 
February 2, 2001

Except for killing people and breaking things, the federal government fails at almost everything it tries to do, and that definitely includes helping the poor.

President Bush seems to have at least partially caught on to this fact, so he’s formed an "Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives" to look into turning over some government welfare services, along with billions of dollars in federal money, to private groups, like churches and charities.

That sounds like a good idea. Churches and private charities did a fine job of helping the poor and infirm through most of United States history, when there were no federal welfare or social security programs. Besides, the federal government is remote and impersonal--local organizations would know better how to help the needy in their communities.

But there are reasons why we should think twice before mixing government money and religious organizations--and they’re not what you might first think.

Of course, many on the left are worried that such a program would blur the lines between church and state too much, but Stephen Goldsmith, who will help oversee Bush’s program, assures: "[Federal money] can fund the soup, it can fund the shelter; it shouldn’t fund the Bibles." So the plan is to narrowly target the federal money toward secular purposes.

Will that be so easy? For one, don’t many faith-based charities consider their secular and sacred functions to be intertwined? How could they be separated? In order to maintain separation, would workers be prohibited from speaking about their faith while engaged in a publicly funded secular function? Is it worth taking federal money at that cost?

But even if this difficulty could be overcome, there’s another problem: When government pays out money, it wants control. In fact, lawmakers are already preparing to impose their will on recipient institutions. Rep. Chet Edwards (D-Texas) says, "I don’t want Bob Jones University to be able to take federal dollars for an alcoholic treatment program and put out a sign that says no Catholics or Jews need apply here for a federally funded job."

Do we want Christian groups to be forced to hire Hindus, atheists, homosexuals, or others with contrary beliefs? If not, we should question the wisdom of giving them federal money.

You might suggest that the Bush administration wouldn’t attach many strings, so regulation wouldn’t be a big problem. That could be. But someday, sad to say, there will probably be another left-wing Democrat regime in the White House. When that time comes, and the new administration demands that faith-based organizations meet a new host of conditions that may undermine some of their fundamental beliefs and religious activities, will those organizations be willing and able to give up the money to preserve their integrity--especially if private donations aren’t coming in like they used to? History shows that, once addicted to public money, most private institutions, however well intentioned, will do almost anything to keep their funding.

Eventually, these organizations could become so bogged down in regulations, and so stripped of their ability to carry on their original religious activities, that they wouldn’t be much better than or different from the original government apparatus that they replaced. If that happened, the long-term effect of Bush’s program would be the federalization and secularization of religious institutions.

The federal government should get out of the welfare business--all the way out. Until it does, churches and charities should resist the temptation of federal dollars and protect the integrity and independence that make them so good at what they do.


© 2001 J. H. Huebert