Our national motto – In God We Trust - seems a little ironic when considered along with the foolish idea of government support for “faith-based” charitable organizations. There’s real danger that religious organization’s zeal for government support – encouraged by President George W. Bush – might be the very undoing of the idea.
“Be careful what you wish for” might be the better motto here.
The Bible, in the Book of Psalms, says that God owns the cattle on a thousand hills. The prophet Malachi, in a stern rebuke for skimping on their tithes, challenged Israel by saying, “prove me now herewith, saith the LORD of hosts, if I will not open you the windows of heaven, and pour you out a blessing, that there shall not be room enough to receive it.”
In other words, God’s not a cheapskate, and his bank account has more than enough to bless those with faith in Him. He fed thousands of hungry mouths beside the Sea of Galilee with just a few loaves and fishes, and when the Apostles’ taxes came due he funded the levy with a silver coin found in the mouth of a fish. There was no creative grant writing involved, no petition to the court of King Herod. The provisioning might have been untraditional, but that’s the whole point. Faith’s fruit is harvested in unexpected ways. As the Apostle Paul said, “faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things unseen.”
So if a charity claims to be faith-based how can it rely upon Uncle Sugar instead of the Almighty for support?
Shortly after taking the Oath of Office in January of 2001, President George W. Bush signed Executive Order 13198 creating the Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. Part of his efforts to make good on the “compassionate conservative” label, the move was hailed by some as a way to efficiently deliver federal relief to frontline organizations that have traditionally provided much-needed charitable services to individuals and communities in need.
President Bush’s public declarations of his personal religious beliefs caused others to see this as a violation of the establishment clause of the First Amendment – the ban on state-sanctioned religion – believing that Christian charities would receive undue favor when the checks were being written.
Still others saw Executive Order 13198 as a dangerous precedent that could forever change the relative autonomy enjoyed by religions in the U.S. In their zeal to obtain monies to continue or expand relief missions within their communities, charities operating within the auspices of religious denominations or specific churches would invite government oversight and jeopardize tax exempt status.
Now, very often, public funds include a foot in the door that regulators can use to impose their will upon the recipients. Parochial schools have historically fended off attempts to mandate curricula, but legal battles related to the use of federal funds for religious purposes have a significant and unresolved history in U.S. courts. In 1973 the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the application of tax benefits for residents of New York attending private schools on the basis that it might encourage religious schooling. Details of that case, the Committee for Public Education and Religious Liberty v. Nyquist, are still being sorted out through separate legal action, but the Nyquist decision still stands.
Meanwhile, direct subsidies for religious charities have only emboldened some atheistic activists in pressing their assault on the influence of America’s religious institutions. Groups such as the Freedom From Religion Foundation and Americans United for the Separation of Church and State have stepped up activities, while seeing increases in membership and donations.
It’s only a matter of time before legal maneuvering results in government intrusion in the affairs of the church, and I believe Executive Order 13198 will play a significant role in that eventuality. President Bush, an avowed evangelical Christian, may have, indirectly and unwittingly, provided the legal leverage needed to undo the sovereignty of religion in America.
The church will get what it deserves when this happens. By relying on the wealth of the state rather than acting on faith, the church has subjugated itself to the whims of the state and may well have denied itself the fruits of the blessings it seeks.