God's work

Last week, liberal, atheistic Seattle finally joined in the important debate over President Bush's "Faith-Based Initiative." At UW's Evans School, a public forum asked good questions, but of the wrong people. The event's panelists included administrators for two big faith-based charities (Union Gospel Mission and St. Vincent de Paul), Alice Woldt of the Church Council of Greater Seattle, and two UW professors. Churches themselves were not represented, nor was the poor or the public sector.

Bush's initiative to allow churches to run federal programs that serve the poor usually raises the hackles of two groups: Liberals are concerned Bush is simply using this as a smoke screen for yet another round of massive cuts in social programs, civil libertarians are alarmed about the separation of church and state. But the real danger of this initiative—the danger to churches themselves—has been largely ignored in the national debate, and the UW forum underplayed it as well.

Attempts to pawn off government on God—and insert government into God—are certainly not new. But previous moves in this direction, such as the Charitable Choice Amendment in Bill Clinton's welfare reform package, did not have the scope, proactiveness, or the social engineering focus of Bush's plan.

Mullahs, pastors, rabbis, ministers, and priests! If the Bush administration comes calling with bucketloads of tax money so that you can administer their social programs, do not walk away. Run. Fast. No—faster. Churches should never, ever become an agent of Caesar, let alone a fiscal dependent.

Jesus, to pick one example, did not serve the poor because a generous grant was available to service targeted client populations. Nor did he apply for money for operating overhead while he healed the sick. But now churches do.

Once, healing was a primary ecumenical calling. Then, in the 1960s, the spigot of federal funding opened for faith-based hospitals. Everything changed. The administrators came in, the accountants, the grant writers, the consultants, the government auditors. Suddenly, it became a matter not of healing, but of money. Now groups like the Seventh Day Adventists squeeze wealth from hospitals and clinics operated across the country—facilities that turn away the uninsured because God's work doesn't figure into their very secular budgets.

The needy need what we all do—housing, food, clothes, health, a job. That's why it's so easy for government agencies to lose sight of their original missions. It's more lucrative to serve less impoverished clients; it's more expedient to heed political trends.

Churches and their adherents do this work, which does in fact help people and even save lives, because they believe it to be holy and righteous and necessary; but they often simply won't be aware of how many strings—OK, steel cables—come attached to government grants.

How will your church fare after the feds get involved? Will it be pursuing the ministry it wants to? Will it feel free to speak out against politicians' policies it perceives as unholy when those policies are proposed by a major funder? In 20 years, under new management, will we have a chain of 2,800 Union Gospel Missions across the country, with conference rooms and free continental breakfasts—but no room for the poor at the inn?

Here it comes. The world of well-meaning, morally motivated congregations overwhelmed by grant restrictions, bean counters, and federal social engineers. They'll call it God's work, too—at first.

Churches should serve the poor without state money or blessing because it's a spiritual imperative, not because there's funding available. And if George W. Bush offers them our tax money to do it, they should refuse. The separation between church and state protects churches, too.


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