Acton Commentary

Reflections on Bush's Faith-Based Initiative


Last January, President George W. Bush created a White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives with the goal of allowing federal funds to flow to religious organizations. By March, there will be offices in the departments of Housing and Urban Development, Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education, as well as a central office in the White House that will coordinate the effort to find ways to loosen the restrictions that currently control federal funding to religious groups.

This initiative requires some serious thought and reflection. On the one hand, as a pastor, I am excited about this new direction, but not for the most obvious reason. My enthusiasm for the program is not because churches will finally be able to enjoy a portion of the federal financial gravy train. This might actually be the most questionable aspect of this program, but I will come to that later. The best part about President Bush’s proposal is that it recognizes the significant achievements of faith-based organizations across the country. Hitherto, our habit of addressing problems, especially big societal problems, has been to look to a governmental official at the local or state or federal level for solutions

We are a strange people. We complain about taxation and governmental involvement or intrusion into our lives, but we have gotten used to demanding that government cure what ails us. We have forgotten what the Founding Fathers said about having limited government.

Conversely, President Bush’s initiative is a wonderful affirmation of the role of religious-based organizations in our society. Some societal problems can simply be better addressed by organizations outside of the government. Faith-based organizations, quite apart from the government, have carried the bulk of the weight in meeting social needs since the first days of our nation. President Bush’s initiative is a recognition of what many have known for a very long time.

However….

Some aspects of the initiative are potentially troubling. My concern is not the question of the separation of church and state (the typical mantra of the political left). My concern is more for the autonomy of religious organizations, or, as it is called in Reformed circles, sphere sovereignty.

In thinking about this whole matter, I recall the advice of my mother—"If it’s free, you can’t afford it." The lesson for my siblings and me was that nothing is free. What are the rules and regulations that accompany federal money? Or—perhaps more difficult to discern but equally dangerous—will faith-based organizations that are funded by federal dollars become more concerned about pleasing their primary supporter than they are with serving their neighborhoods?

One of the primary reasons that faith-based organizations are far more effective than the government is because they are local. Decisions are made in the very communities where they are applied. What will federal money do to the autonomy and local emphasis that are absolutely vital to the success of faith-based organizations? As Lord Acton stated, "Bureaucracy tries to establish so many administrative maxims that the minister is as narrowly guided and controlled as the judge."

A second concern has to do with the central purpose of religious organizations. The introduction of governmental funding has the potential to cause the church to take its focus off its central role as proclaimer of the Gospel and to become merely another social service organization. There is no doubt that feeding the hungry and clothing the naked and caring for those who cannot care for themselves are significant biblical themes. These things are clearly a part of the ministry of a church. But they are not the essence of what the Christian church is about; the church is not a social service agency. The history of the church demonstrates that a large amount of money is as dangerous to churches as it is to individuals.

For this initiative to work well, two temptations must be avoided. The government must refrain from its natural tendency to tie funding to control, or it will destroy the very thing it is attempting to value. And churches must avoid their historic tendency to allow money to take their focus off the central reason for their existence, or they will cease to be churches.