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Faith-based plan needs watching

In the days after President Bush established a new White House Office of Faith-based and Community Initiatives, the fear of theocracy was thick on the talk shows and the front pages.

It may turn out, however, that the fear was more a flailing at a perception of what Bush intends than opposition to what actually will be put in place. For, the only thing clear at press time was that the administration had released few details beyond an executive order to establish the office and another order, again lacking in specifics, that government departments work to eliminate obstacles to funding faith-based groups providing social services.

In addition, one need only look as far as Catholic Charities, Catholic Relief Services and Lutheran Services in America to find long-standing models for how government and religiously affiliated groups have worked well together to meet a wide range of human need here and abroad.

Still the fear is real, and for good reasons. Bush should be aware that, noble as his intentions might be, gaining consensus on the proper role of religion in service of the state could be as difficult as getting the pope and Bob Jones to agree on Marian doctrine.

Understanding exactly what Bush wants to accomplish is tough to get at because so few details are available. The proposal has yet to be fashioned into legislative language, and his aides say that many of the details dealing with elements that have drawn fire from those concerned about church-state separation will be ironed out as the plans are refined.

In the meantime, the din over church and state matters may well have diverted attention from some of the more plausible, if latent, threats in the latest initiative.

The bottom line of the new initiative will be money. The main question is whether more money will be available or simply more agencies will be competing for the same pot. Those religious groups long-established in delivering social services with federal and state money are concerned that proposed tax breaks for donors will mean no increase, or even a cut, in funds for programs.

It may be an appealing notion to some to speak of church groups delivering faith-based help on every street corner, in competition with “secular” agencies. But the potential for trouble is great. In working out the details, the Bush administration must be certain that agencies receiving money are staffed by competent professionals. Credentials and experience in delivering services should rank high among considerations for those receiving money.

If the criteria for receiving funds are not clear, if the standards for staff and counselors in those agencies are not set at a high enough level, the administration is asking for trouble and embarrassment in the coming years. Accountability and professionalism should not be compromised.

Any plan to expand the activities of religious groups in delivering social services should contain strict rules against proselytizing as part of the delivery process. An instructive maxim is cited at Catholic Charities: We don’t do what we do because the people we serve are Catholic or because we want them to be Catholic, but because we are Catholic.

If the government does not soften the rules and there is no easy money to be had, the Bush administration may find that a lot of religious groups weed themselves out of the process. Many fear involvement with government money because of the rules; others fear lawsuits and still other small denominations don’t want to go through the steps to set up the separate agencies that the Catholic church and other mainline denominations have established to handle social services.

The government should not see a new emphasis on church groups and individual donors as a way out of a commitment to fund growing needs. As Joanne Negstad, president and CEO of Lutheran Services in America, said of the new plan: “Church and state are separate, but they are bridged by a common desire to help the country’s most needy. We are encouraged by President Bush’s actions and hope that he intends to do more than wave from his side of the bridge.”

In the same way, Sharon Daly, vice president for social policy at Catholic Charities USA, emphasizes that the real question is “whether there will be more federal dollars there to help the poor so that they can get out of dead-end jobs that pay minimum wage. This is the richest country in human history,” she said, yet there are couples making $6 to $8 an hour and spending 60 percent to 80 percent of their income on rent because of the lack of affordable housing.

The religious community should be cautious about taking government money. One of the essential functions of the religious community is to challenge the government from a faith-based perspective on policies that might be perpetuating poverty and despair.

Policies on labor, education, welfare reform, job training, minimum wage, child care, health care and a host of other areas all can have an effect on whether people stay in poverty or rise above it. The religious community must be careful that it does not get so focused on keeping the federal grants rolling in that it becomes hesitant to speak to systemic ills, challenging policies that make life more miserable for poor people, who have few other advocates on Capitol Hill.

One of the difficulties in discussing any partnership between government and religion, though that partnership has existed in various forms for a long time, is that so much of our religious language has become loaded with political meaning. Indeed, visions of theocracy do dance in some of the heads of the most extreme religious right in the Republican Party, and it is no secret that Bush owes that wing of the party for its dutiful silence and obedient disappearance during the convention and much of the campaign.

But that wing of the party has also shown itself adept in the past at stealth activities at the grassroots level. In fact, its success in running “stealth” candidates for low-level party offices was a principal route to power within the party.

So a healthy dose of skepticism is certainly in order as the details of the plan fall into place.

National Catholic Reporter, February 9, 2001