More Faithless-Based Initiatives

I don’t care if Barack Obama changes the name of Bush’s “White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives” to a “Council for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships.” I think most of the thirty evangelical leaders he sat down with in a private downtown Chicago meeting on June 10 to win their support won’t either.

I don’t care if his plan claims superiority because it forbids religious organizations from using taxpayer funds “to proselytize the people,” or says the government handouts can go only to “secular programs.” In reality, that only continues to free up more of the religious organizations’ own money to proselytize, and, thereby, indirectly continues the old administration’s role as proselytizer of the sectarian religions involved.

I’m sorry if religious organizations have become so government-dependent that getting on or off the government dole is a key to the effectiveness of what they claim are their good works. I know that historically religious organizations have done great social work on their own, but I’m sure they’ve justified Caesar’s help by now.

I’m unconvinced that a religious organization or business is inherently more effective than adequately-supported government programs, though we’re all supposed to believe that well-repeated myth. Show me real supporting data for it.

I worry, as Jim Wallis of Sojourners fame once did, that such programs function “as a substitute for necessary public policies attacking the causes and consequences of poverty within the United States.” In this conservative climate, where people still call center-right Bill Clinton a liberal on such matters, these initiatives are bound to drain money from somewhere, and that’s likely to be more expensive programs that tackle the sources of the poverty that shows up at the faith-based organizations.

Though Obama might really believe that his embracing such a program is not as much of a political move as it was for W, the current Believer-in-Chief, I can only guess where Obama’s desire to woo the Christian right-wing in this and other ways stands on a scale from merely political to mostly sincere. In his own private religious/political mind, W is somewhere on that same scale.

If there is any meaning to “By their fruits ye shall know them,” I believe, as I argued in When Religion Is an Addiction, that seeking government funding of so-called faith-based initiatives is evidence that the seekers have lost faith in their avowed higher power and substituted government commitments for their own. It’s a symptom of fear of religious failure.

It’s as if those who trumpet the bumper sticker “WWJD” believe that Jesus said: “Sorry gang. We won’t be able to feed the five thousand effectively until we get that grant from the Roman Emperor.”

These government programs to fund faith-based programs enable the decline of faith in the Divine and in the Spirit’s work within the religious organizations. It’s as if their god can’t get this done on His own.

John Leland, a famous 18th century Baptist minister, understood this: “Persecution, like a lion, tears the saints to death, but leaves Christianity pure; state establishment of religion, like a bear, hugs the saints, but corrupts Christianity.”

Leland hit the nail on the head. When the government enables religious people to do THEIR good works better, when it embraces them as a bear, it saves religious people from having to sacrifice more of their own treasure for their faith.

The good works which included making financial sacrifices both for spreading their faith and helping the needy, the sacrifice that proved the deep level of their conviction, and even kept some believers from piling up riches unto themselves, are now replaced by government funding.

The good works being done are now not their good works but everyone’s — yours and mine. We’re paying for it. And they can give less money so their lifestyles won’t suffer too much.

They can spend it on bigger homes, gas-guzzling tanks, and the pleasures of life. They can again prove Jesus wrong by showing: You CAN “serve God and mammon.”

They are saved from facing a most difficult challenge to the level of their faith, the hard task of proselytizing — getting people to come to them in the first place. The government-funded program can bring the unbelievers in where the law says they don’t have to “remove religious art, icons, scripture, or other symbols.”

Then there’s the deeper personal issue that can fuel an emphasis on faith-based initiatives as opposed to government programs. Protestant theologians like Reinhold Niebuhr warned of the subtle sin of pride that can be involved in charity, a sin absent from a program for which one is taxed.

A program for which I am forced to pay taxes, I can feel, can’t count as my very own good works. In contrast, I can feel so good about the charity I do for all those needy people. I can feel so “fortunate” in contrast, so “blessed” in a way that those others are not. So, why not prefer my good works to paying taxes?

And finally, religious institutions and coffers themselves benefit when government programs are poor. Contrast European countries where universal healthcare means people can turn to the government for help and religious activity doesn’t dominate the political landscape as it does here. But the poor safety net we have set up encourages many to realize that they can’t turn to such help. The only thing left is prayer. “Clinging to guns and religion” wasn’t such an unrealistic diagnosis.

Notice how much the leaders of right-wing religion fear a welfare state and fight for their faith by dismantling as many of the Roosevelt reforms as possible. “Suffering is good for those people and gives me a chance to show pity for them.”

“Separation of church and state” might be a phrase that’s not politically – and I do mean politically — correct for these presidential candidates. But it’s true on both sides: when religion and government are mixed, both are in trouble.

And if we are looking for a sign of growing unbelief in our culture, this is a big one. Unfortunately for us, the response to such fear is usually that reflected in the marginal notes a pastor once added to his sermon: “Weak point here. Pound the pulpit harder.”