The Lord’s Bureaucrats and This Whole Faith-Based Initiatives Thing

Written by Lionel Tiger on . Posted in Breaking News, Posts.

It must have seemed like
a good idea in the small Texas town where it was incubated or considered.
But it turns out the freshly innocent idea of giving churches money to do
social service threatens to turn into an immense mess.

But what could be wrong
in principle with giving extra money to institutions already committed to
delivering vital welfare to needy people who are part of their community of
After all,
for the longest time, churches were the most prolific and effective purveyors
of daycare in the country, and were responsible for a cornucopia of often
adventurous and almost always directly helpful activities that escaped many
of the costs of the commercial or governmental interests competing with them.
And if it was faith-based, so much the better, because the alternatives–linked
either to profitmaking businesses or constipated bureaucracies–were less
attractive and certainly far less lustrous. People who believe in something
are obviously likely to pursue it keenly. The added extra inducement of taking
part in the large pageant called religion should surely generate both energy
and sound judgment.

Not so fast.
The proposal clearly animated anxieties about at least two dramatic questions:
"What’s a religion?" and "Who gets how much money?"
Governors of established outfits such as Pat Robertson mused warily about whether
any group from Scientology to the Hare Krishna to the Farrakhan Collective could
find benefit from the public purse and thus enhance what might now be a theologically
marginal reputation, or even disreputation. Would the Amish, who have a perfectly
effective web of social services, now be able to have these supported by taxpaying
Catholics, atheists and Methodists? Was the notion "faith-based" really
a stand-in for "church-based," and therefore relatively mainstream

At the same
time, as Laurie Goodstein of the Times has reported, there appear to
be sharp differences between clergy with dark skin who look forward to help
with their considerable burdens, and those with light skin, who are more concerned
that government meddling in their communal affairs will not be worth any amount
of money. And even among dark-skinned clergy in New York City, there is concern
that the faith-based initiative is camouflage for government withdrawal from
providing traditional welfare. Otherwise, why change an ongoing system?

leave aside the nontrivial issue of separation of church and state, because
it is surely possible for people of good will to set acceptable limits on the
links between churches and governments. Of course there are many already–such
as those involving taxation or its absence. There is some prospect that rather
than fight about who gets how much money and for what, if the program gets under
way the various groups that qualify for assistance will cooperate to ensure
that fairness is served and that no group achieves a special advantage because
of its seniority, influential membership, ethnicity or skin color, political
connections, or whatever.

This is by
no means impossible. The initiative could produce an interfaith colloquium in
communities that will serve everyone in good stead. If all the groups involved
share a commitment to the value and power of religion, here could be a forceful
source of social integration. But is it likely? In the mini-phone directory
for the relatively homogeneous neighborhood in which this newspaper is located,
there are 44 different groups defined as churches, and five synagogues. There
happen to be no mosques in the area, at least not yet. The churches range from
the Moonies to Byzantine Catholic to Evangelical Free to Roman Catholic to the
Ocean Church on 8th Ave. Should all these entities qualify for federal funding
as they presumably now qualify for tax status, are they likely to be in accord
about what dollars they should get to serve residents of the same neighborhood?
And we cannot forget that many faithful organizations are also evangelical.
They are eager to gain as much constituency in any community as they can.

As much as
religious organizations may broadly share a common source, the bitterly dolorous
history of interreligious strife everywhere from the Balkans to Indonesia to
Lebanon is not an automatic encouragement. Faith is by definition imprecise
and conjectural. Almost inevitably it is a richer source of doctrinal and other
disputes than if clear and defined issues of "market share" are in
question. In fact, prudent social policy might well be to limit opportunities
for religious competition rather than to set them in place and mandate them
by legislation.

The initial
grumblings of the likes of Pat Robertson, who represent large established groups,
must indicate real concern that simply by being defined as a religious entity,
otherwise marginal groups will secure social and financial status that more
established folk might regard as unwarranted. When the seductive alchemy of
voting blocs is added to the story, as in the Hillary Clinton enthusiasm for
upstate Hasids whose leaders were jailed for stealing public money and who were
pardoned by President Clinton, then the possibility is decisively enhanced for
dangerous corruption of both religious and political groups. And when the business
of tapping the public purse becomes an industry, the community runs the risk
of raising up the Reverends Jesse Jackson and Jim Bakkers of the world, whose
ability to manipulate public sentiment and tax exemption violates the very essence
of religious meaning and standards.

All this may
be dramatic enough. But far more significant for the quality of life of people
involved in all this is utterly undramatic–in fact the opposite: filling
in the forms. This is the time of year when countless people go through conniptions
filling in a government form–the one that has to accompany paying money
to the government. Consider how much more complicated would be completing a
form to receiving money from the government. Anyone who works in a university
or welfare agency or school board or similar well-meaning organization who has
to apply to the federal government for funds knows with acute intimacy the seemingly
endless and ramified data that are required.

There is an
understandable need for the government to act fairly, and be seen to act fairly.
This imposes enormous demands for information on those who benefit from its
coffers. But the search for fairness and transparency can produce paperwork
nightmares for everyone involved.

However thoughtful
and skillful may be Dr. John DiIulio, who will run the program with his associates,
it is almost inevitable that, for example, churches applying for money for a
few staffers and some orange juice money for an afterschool program will find
that they will have either to hire or train people to make the application.
They will have to boast as much bureaucratic skill as the officials who will
read and judge the paper they are sent. This may not turn out as badly as some
commentators appear to fear. But it may. And for a government committed to reducing
the role and size of its intervention in people’s lives, turning active
religious centers into bureaucratic beehives seems perversely inappropriate.

It’s rethink