A few years ago, during the debate about welfare reform, it was suggested that the government ought not to be involved anymore in providing social services and care to people in need, because it wasn't doing a very good job. Some advocates of welfare reform were saying during that debate that churches and similar non-profit caring agencies were more qualified and capable to minister to human need, and could do it better because of the compassion that grew from their faith.
Many of us felt that was just more government smoke, an attempt by the government to excuse its failure to take responsibility for people in need. We saw it as an "unfunded mandate" government trying to pass the responsibility of maintaining a just and compassionate society to churches, without providing the money to support the effort at the level it reasonably required. Churches, almost by definition, have a limited constituency or membership for which they take some level of responsibility for ministry and care. But no church or association of churches can possibly take responsibility for persons much beyond that constituency. A church cannot provide comprehensive services to meet a broad scope of human needs in the general population. It simply doesn't have the money and even if it did, the church might reasonably see its "mission" as different from that of a social service agency.
And there are strong public-policy reasons for government, and not churches, to take responsibility for helping to meet the needs of citizens who cannot take care of themselves. There are certain functions that government must assume in a democracy, functions that we traditionally support with tax dollars streets, schools, defense, fire and police protection, to name a few. All citizens pay for these services through taxes even though they may never directly use all of them because the services bring order and the possibilities for a good future to society. But a responsible society goes beyond the provision of minimum services. We know that when our neighbors suffer, we are all diminished. The success and nobility of a society are largely measured by the way it treats the least able of its members.
President Bush, by executive order, has established The White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. According to a related Web site, its purpose is to "make federal programs more friendly to faith-based and community solutions and to make federal funding more accessible." Here is how the White House has stated the problem:
"Our Nation has a long and honorable commitment to assisting individuals, families, and communities who have not fully shared in America's growing prosperity. Yet despite a multitude of programs and renewed commitments by the Federal and state governments to battle social distress, too many of our neighbors still suffer poverty and despair amidst our abundance.
* As many as 15 million young people are at risk of not reaching productive adulthood falling prey to crime, drugs and other problems that make it difficult to obtain an education, successfully enter the workforce, or otherwise contribute to society;
* More than 2 million children have a father or mother in prison or jail;
* More than half a million children are in foster care, and more than one fifth of those children are awaiting adoption;
* In 1997, more than one million babies were born to unwed mothers, many of whom are children themselves; and
* More than one out of six American families with children live on an annual income of $17,000 or less.
"Millions of Americans are enslaved to drugs or alcohol. Hundreds of thousands live on the streets. And despite the many successes of welfare reform, too many families remain dependent and many of those who have left the rolls can barely make ends meet. In welfare and social policy, the Federal Government will play a new role as supporter, enabler, catalyst and collaborator with faith-based and community organizations. "
There was an initial blush of optimism about that remarkable language and the idea of government finally recognizing the competence and skill with which faith-based organizations deal with human problems. Although there was an early attraction to the idea of government finally putting some real money behind that new recognition, much of the religious press is now skeptical. The biggest fear is loss of control. Churches now have freedom to hire who they please. An applicant for a position in a church-operated project can be rejected for reasons that in the private sector would be discriminatory. Will the funds provided by the initiative bring a set of rules and restrictions that will force the church to modify or shape its program to conform to a broader public policy, and risk limiting its effectiveness? And are the agencies of the government from which the funds will come morally qualified to judge whether the church's projected program will be effective or not? If the government knows so much about how things should be done, why doesn't it just do the job itself?
Skepticism abounds from the other side as well. Who will award the grants? Will there be bias, some kind of unwritten litmus test that an applicant must pass, in order to qualify? If the grant reviewer is a fundamentalist Christian, will fundamentalist Christians have a priority on the money because they are considered to be more qualified? Will tax dollars be spent on programs whose primary agenda is really religious conversion?
Although skepticism can be healthy, cynicism is not, and has no place in the debate. We have a real opportunity to sharpen and extend the discussion about the responsibility of society to all its members. Maybe we can ask the question again about what we mean by the separation of church and state, and why we should care about it. It could be very interesting and very healthy. And who knows? Somebody might even find some new possibilities for their lives as a result. Stay tuned.
Thomas Dahl is Pastor of Aldersgate United Methodist Church.