The following is a transcript of Rev Robert A Sirico's commentary on NPR's, "All Things Considered" which aired on January 24, 2001
After Mr. Bush was confirmed as president—elect, I was asked to attend a meeting with him in Austin, Texas, along with about twenty five other religious leaders. We were there to discuss what the nation's faith-based charities were doing and how we might do it better.
The problem we confront is immense. Governments at all levels have imposed strict rules and time limits on public aid to the poor. These changes have reduced the hazard of the welfare state: its tendency to reinforce the very need it is trying to eliminate.
But the need for social support doesn't end when government calls off its social workers and stops sending checks. The needs of the poor are many and varied. Addressing them requires a human touch. That's why I believe the future of charity in America rests with private, religiously motivated activism.
I've been astonished at how our meeting has been characterized and criticized. First, it was portrayed as a Republican effort to heal racial wounds (I'm neither Republican nor black). Then, it was attacked for plotting to unify Church and state by lobbying for subsidies from taxpayers, raising the specter of evangelism at public expense.
The core of the meeting wasn’t subsidies, but how to ensure greater freedom to do what we are called to do: serve God by serving others. Mr. Bush asked, "How do we hinder what you are doing?" And then he listened.
Government regulates the services religious charities provide, from the credentials of drug counselors and the equipment permitted in a soup kitchen, to the removal of religious symbols from facilities. The real concern should be the outcome, not the process. Another problem is the tax system itself, which doesn’t encourage charitable giving to the extent that it could or should. Broad-based tax cuts of the kind that Mr. Bush is proposing would help. Charitable giving always goes up with increases in disposable income. It’s the only sure way to increase donations.
My worry about direct subsidies isn't that the 'wall of separation' will be breached but that direct support for religious organizations might lessen independence.
Yet there are ways around this problem. People should be permitted to designate contributions to private charities on their tax forms, diverting dollars that would otherwise be going to bloated and ineffective governmental agencies. In Michigan, for example, if someone donates money to public radio, it’s taken off what they pay in state income tax. Why shouldn’t such a credit be available for charities, too? This way, the contributions come not from the public treasury but from private citizens—which is where I hope the future for most social service is as well.
The separation of Church and state needn't require a separation of religion and society..