Acton Commentary

Faith-Based Funding Politicizes Religion


The departure of Jim Towey, a decent and honorable a public servant, as the head of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives is a good occasion to reflect on how the Bush administration program has impacted American religious and political culture.

For a hint, consider the energetic campaign by liberal groups such as Americans United for Separation of Church and State. They call the idea of tax-funded grants to religious groups “religious discrimination” that violates the separation of church and state. They are promising to make a major election issue out of the subject.

How people feel about the issue depends on the spin.

If you ask: Do you believe that religious groups should be uniquely barred from being eligible for public contracts to provide humanitarian and charitable services? The answer you get is: Probably not.

If, however, you ask, Do you believe that it violates the separation of church and state and the Constitution to force taxpayers to subsidize the charitable work of partisan religious organizations? The answer you will get will be: Probably so.

How the issue is framed, who or what prevails in the argument of how the case is presented, and what the policy outcome should or shouldn't be, and how money ought to be allocated--all these promise to be major divisive issues in the politics of the future.

There are troubling aspects to this.

First, some Republicans present their case with the assumption that religious groups are harmed or excluded from public life if they are not getting subsidies. This is absurd.

According to the Independent Sector, 60 percent of households give to religious congregations, almost all of which provide some service that might be considered charitable. Most all of those same households give to both religious and secular organizations, but religious organizations receive the most (about $1,391 per year, per household).

However much the government has provided since President Bush has been in office, it is a drop in the bucket as compared with the ocean of private funding available and operative. But White House polling must indicate that many of its dedicated supporters favor these programs for religious congregations.

I would far rather see a president rally people to give more to charity than rally voters to support government programs that go to religious organizations, and to create incentives and lessen penalties when they do give. What's bothersome is this idea that somehow private funding is culturally insignificant whereas public funding somehow confers legitimacy on institutions and their place in society.

The second troubling and more significant aspect comes from the Democratic and liberal side, with the idea that the influence of religion on public life is baneful and to be feared and prevented, as if it is somehow corrupting of what would otherwise be a pure system of objective and secular welfare for all.

Can these groups make a case against public funding for religion that doesn't also result in drumming up resentment against believers? Given their harsh rhetoric and hysterical warnings of a coming theocracy, I'm not so sure.

Here is the question that both sides need to confront. Is it possible to champion a high role for religion in charity work without making the issue so egregiously politicized? Certainly it is. Indeed this is the practical American tradition. Part of the point of separating religion from government is to protect faith against the corruptions that come from entanglements with politics.

But how does a measly few hundred million from the government do this? Subsidies from the public trough are much easier to come by in larger amounts than private funding. Yes, there is paperwork but the funding is more generous and certain. Once a religious institution comes to be favored for grants, they can relax in their efforts to raise funds through private means. And the focus of their mission slowly changes.

Just the prospect of funding can cause institutional priorities to change. “Extremist” religions (that is, those that have a clear, assertive and confident self-identity) are clearly not as eligible as those who bury their religious agenda under a bushel. I've seen many such cases of this moderating tendency in religious organizations.

One can easily imagine how public financing might actually hurt private fundraising, inspiring an “I-gave-at-the-office” attitude among potential donors. Why should anyone shell out for charity with the knowledge that their taxes are relieving them of obligations?

Moreover, it is hard to argue with the Democrat's claim that taxpayers have a right not to fund religiously partisan projects. There has always been a pact in American politics, even if it has been imperfectly followed: Religious organizations fund themselves through private means and they are free to influence the culture in whatever way they can. Those who loath religion generally, or some religion in particular, are free to do so, but they need not fear that their tax dollars are being taken to pay for it.

That's the way religious pluralism is supposed to work. Whenever the state has been involved in supporting religion, we can confidently predict a rise in anti-religious bigotry. Catholics are very aware of the hatred directed against them in New York politics in the late 19th century, but few are aware that public funding of parochial schools had much to do with it. A more refined form of the same bigotry is at work today - and not just against Catholics, but committed believers of all stripes.

Jim Towey is leaving to become president of St. Vincent College, a small but fine Benedictine Catholic school in Latrobe, Pennsylvania. I think he will have a greater and more positive impact on people's lives in this way. In the same way, believers ought to turn more heavily to their own resources and donors and forget this campaign for tax-paid financing. The dangers are too great, not for the state but for public perceptions of religious charities.

If you love and favor religious charity, and want to see it thrive, keep it privately financed. And give.