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The Great Works at the Acton Institute Open House

Tuesday, Nov. 30 - 4pm to 8pm

Charities are usually founded on high ideals and goals. But the difficult part comes when those behind the good cause must come up with the cold, hard cash to fund their charitable works.

One always supposes that there are benefactors out there who will be happy to support the cause. But they rarely appear in the way you imagine. It takes years to cultivate a funding base, and there is a potential for many missteps that don't pay off: expensive letters sent that don't yield fruit, trips taken that turn up nothing, appeals that don't appeal. The job of finding funding for charitable work is more difficult that it appears. You believe in your cause, but convincing others is something else entirely.

This is where federal funding can appear to be a grave temptation. It seems easy at first. You only need to fill out the forms – many of them. Then you wait. Then you fill out more forms, and you swear to abide by many conditions. You submit to some degree of oversight and you thereby surrender some independence. Managing the grant itself becomes a job, and you even end up sinking resources into hiring someone to do it. The grant may eventually appear, but is your charity the same one you imagined at the outset? How much of your operations have been compromised by the desire for a secure and lavish budget?

This is why I have never been a supporter of the Bush administration's Faith-Based Initiative that makes religious charities eligible for federal funding. Charities with a religious mission shouldn't be getting mixed up in all that bureaucracy, all those regulations, and all those rules concerning their own internal management. Nor should they become dependent on taxpayers. Doing so skews the institutional mission of the charity. It just isn't worth it.

I also worry about the public backlash that the history of church-state intermingling suggests is inevitable. It is a normal facet of public life that taxpayers don't look entirely kindly on institutions that are living off the proceeds of the tax state. When Catholic schools took government money in the late 19th century, it prompted a wicked public reaction that unleashed hatred against Catholics that lasted for many decades. Or think of the way people react when a local newspaper reports on evangelical efforts at a charter school.

The lesson of this long history is that if you want to do religiously motivated work in the United States, it is best to do it on your own dime. This is what American culture expects, a belief rooted very deeply in our history and current practice. I believe that this practice is best for the health of religion and the health of the state. We all benefit by keeping religion separate from the public sector so that it can better grow, flourish, and transform society.

Now to the reason I'm back on this topic. Barack Obama has announced that he likes President Bush's program of public funding for religious charities. In fact, he wants to expand the program. Interestingly, he seems happy to employ the language of conservatives: "I know there are some who bristle at the notion that faith has a place in the public square. But the fact is, leaders in both parties have recognized the value of a partnership between the White House and faith-based groups."

But then he turns it to his ends: "The challenges we face today, from putting people back to work to improving our schools, from saving our planet to combating HIV/AIDS to ending genocide, are simply too big for government to solve alone," Obama said. "We need all hands on deck."

Note the implied assumption that if government is not funding something, it is not being done – that if politicians and bureaucrats are not involved, all hands are not on deck. Contrary to what both Bush and Obama seem to believe, it is possible to have hands on deck using primarily private money. Just because taxpayers aren't paying the bill doesn't mean it is not happening and it is not making a difference. Why do politicians turn to religious charities in the first place? Because they know we have a secret in caring for the poor: our faith. And only dilution and compromise come to the faith when it gets entangled with politics.

In some ways, we shouldn't be surprised that Obama is warm to this idea. It is part of his intellectual apparatus and part of the party he will represent in the election. He believes in government and all its pomps, and never misses a chance to say that something good should be subsidized by the public sector. This accords with his philosophy.

It is good politics, too, as President Clinton recognized. For a Democrat to come out in favor of religion assists in belying the stereotype and it reassures middle class voters who might be skeptical of the cultural aims of the Democrats.

More blame, then, goes to the Republicans who should have known better – which is precisely what I have said to this administration from its inception. They tend to have more economic understanding and a broader knowledge of the dangers associated with making institutions dependent on government financing. Had Bush not worked so hard for this program, it wouldn't already be established in a way that permits any future Democrat administration to take it over and use it for its own purposes.

Surely there is a lesson here both for charities and politics. Charities need to stay away from politics if they want to maintain their institutional integrity and do their job in a way that is consistent with their ideals. The long-term interests of a charitable institution are best served by an independent and private source of financial support, even if it takes longer to develop than one that comes from the taxpayers.

And politicians need to stop using the charitable sector as a kind of political football and free up money (perhaps in the form of generous personal and business tax credits) whereby people and businesses can support worthy charities. There is just too much at stake for this kind of game playing.

This commentary originally appeared on National Review Online.  

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Rev. Robert A. Sirico received his Master of Divinity degree from the Catholic University of America following undergraduate study at the University of Southern California and the University of London.  During his studies and early ministry, he experienced a growing concern over the lack of training religious studies students receive in fundamental economic principles, leaving them poorly equipped to understand and address today's social problems.  As a result of these concerns, Fr. Sirico co-founded the Acton Institute with Kris Alan Mauren in 1990.