What Would Jesus Do?

(With Government Funding?) 
By Jennifer Pinkowski  


Back in January, President Bush announced that he was establishing the White House office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, allowing religious institutions to compete with secular agencies for federal funds for social services.

God being no less popular than apple pie and mom, many editorial and Op Ed pages across the country hailed the idea. But the charitable choice plan also sparked much opposition — from the left and, surprisingly, the right.

Among the reservations: the bill threatened to breach the wall of separation between church and state (civil libertarians); it discriminated against women and the poor (the left); religious institutions would be pressured to kowtow to the government for money, to give up independence for tax dollars (the right).

Even the Bush administration was taken aback by critics from the right — including Pat Robertson, no less. Confusing, no? On the theory that God (or something less benign) is in the details, I decided to consult those who have been looking at the nexus of religion, the state and civil society, week in and week out, over the years — the religious journals of opinion. The findings:

Sojourners Magazine, on the evangelical left, welcomed the initiative. Its editor-in-chief and executive director, Jim Wallis, who has both breakfasted at the White House and demonstrated against it, wrote that to focus on church-state controversies is a "distraction" from what’s really important. He points out that "in the tradition of biblical prophets, such as Isaiah, the religious community is called to speak truth to power." His main reservation is on behalf of what he calls "the prophetic integrity of religious groups who might appropriately receive some government funding." His hope is that the new White House office will become "a two-way listening post," and that this time around neither the faith-based groups nor the government will forget their mission on behalf of the poor (as he believes Clinton’s welfare "reform" did). "Why not forge partnerships with the most effective nonprofits,
both religious and secular?" Sojourners Magazine asks. "And why discriminate against nonprofits because they are religious?"

Tikkun, founded in l986 by a relatively radical rabbi, Michael Lerner, as a left-liberal alternative to Commentary, is less enthusiastic. Its principal concern is that Bush's move is to use faith-based organizations "to absorb and cover the impact of his larger plan: to cut public sector funding." For some years Lerner has been crusading on behalf of what he calls the "politics of meaning." "We have argued through the years that only by fundamentally re-understanding human needs and addressing the hunger for love, connection and meaning can we develop a politics that could provide an alternative to the limited vision of both right and left."

Commonweal, a center-liberal Catholic biweekly, thinks the idea is worth taking seriously but raises the question of the distinction between a religion and a cult. "In deciding who gets the money," Commonweal asks, "will government also be deciding what is or isn't a legitimate religion? Do we really want money going to someone like David Koresh? Or the Church of Scientology, with its reputation for psychological manipulation and secrecy?"

America, a progressive Jesuit publication that has been publishing since l909, says "Yes, if they get results and if secular alternatives, of which the President spoke, are also available." But it recognizes that the plan raises five significant questions: (l) Would it blur the line between church and state? (The ACLU says it's unconstitutional.) (2) Will private agencies "be expected to do what government should do?" (3) "Would the plan provide additional funds or just shift around monies already available?" (4) Would religious institutions be required to make "unacceptable" compromises? (5) Would the plan support controversial projects like drug rehabilitation programs and groups like the Nation of Islam, among others?

Christianity Today, a conservative weekly that the Billy Graham ministry has been publishing for over 40 years,
supports the idea but is concerned "about diluting the evangelical message and mission of the church." It doesn’t want Scientologists or the Moonies to get any federal dollars and tells its readers, "We are right to warn that discretionary government grants covering overhead costs or salaries would likely make the church too dependent on the state and open the door to government regulations."

But lest there be any misunderstanding, it adds, with a bit of a zinger, "[W]e'll say it again: Bush's plan to remove bias against religious organizations in federal contracts for social services is great."

There is no more unanimity among the Talmudic, Catholic and Evangelical thinkers than there is among the Op Ed and mainstream editorialists, but those in the former group do seem to ponder matters on a deeper, if not higher (and more spiritual) level. &

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