Acton Institute Powerblog

Faith in the Faith-Based Initiative

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Joe Knippenberg raises three issues with respect to my critique of the faith-based initiative (here and here). He writes first, “any activity that depends upon money is potentially corrupting, whether the source is governmental or private…. Why governmental money is different from private in this regard isn’t clear to me.”

I agree that the potential for corruption is present in both cases, but the immediate constituency differs from private to public funds. For the former, the donors are the immediate stake-holders and the charity is accountable to them. For the latter, politicians and bureaucrats are those who hold the charity immediately accountable.

Despite the best intentions of many people who work in government, special interests and ideologies can skew their proper stewardship of taxpayer money, and does not always represent the interests of the citizenry. Since taxpayer money is mediated through the government, there is another layer of institutionalization that serves to increase the distance and thus the accountability between the charity and the donor constituency.

This raises another important issue, which is that strictly speaking taxpayers shouldn’t be considered “donors” in the traditional sense at all. Paying taxes is enforced by the power of the state in a way that voluntary donation to private charities is not. One aspect of this is the distancing effect I just pointed out, but another effect is that the moral virtue of the act of giving is displaced by the coercive nature of the taxpayer/government relationship. Surely those who voluntarily give even more to charities than they are required by taxation are worthy of even greater praise because of this, but nevertheless the nature of the money flowing in to charities from these two sources is quite different. One is coerced the other is voluntary.
His second point is that “government money can help faith-based groups grow big enough to develop the kind of record to attract private donors and to create the kind of fund-raising expertise required to sustain their missions without compromise.” This is an important point, and it may be that the Silver Ring Thing is a prime example of this (the time the ACLU lawsuit took probably gave the SRT leadership time to prepare for the potential loss of future government funding). The charity must be intentional about entering into relationship with the government in this way, and be ready to pull the plug whenever they are in danger of compromising their mission.

Indeed, Joe and I both agree, as he says, that “the integrity of the mission depends upon the self-discipline of the group in refusing to accept money that compromises their mission.” My concern is that the apologetics for the faith-based initiative can present a rose-colored picture of the program, glossing over inherent dangers. Joe’s TAE op-ed does a good job of exposing some of these dangers.

Some non-profits may unwittingly come to count on government funding in a way that is ultimately irresponsible, but this does nothing but underscore the importance of charities being fully informed about the potential positives and negatives of taking government money. For some anecdotes and reactions from some charities who were asked if government regulations impeded their work, visit this page.

Joe’s final point is with respect to alternative interpretations of the establishment clause in the First Amendment. He writes, “One of the principal reasons that government money is perceived as secularizing is that supporting the religious elements of the mission is (wrongly, I would argue) understood as establishment.” He notes the analogous situation in voucher programs, which don’t require separation of religious and secular elements.

I’m not so comfortable in interpreting the clause the way Joe does. Proselytizing (or to use the more sympathetic term “evangelism”), for example, seems to be verboten in all versions of the faith-based initiative I have seen. Perhaps this is proper. Again, I return to the question if Christians would be comfortable with government funds being used by groups that actively promote other religions. I’ll have to think about this some more, but I’m inclined to err in favor of a free and vital church that is not dependent on the state.

But my further question here is whether routing money for social services which will ultimately be used by private charities is the best way to do things. It seems to me to add an unnecessary layer of bureaucracy and government control. Increased tax credits which promote the direct contribution of money to specific kinds of private charities could potentially work just as well and be a much more efficient application of funds.

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Jordan J. Ballor Jordan J. Ballor (Dr. theol., University of Zurich; Ph.D., Calvin Theological Seminary) is a senior research fellow and director of publishing at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion & Liberty. He is also a postdoctoral researcher in theology and economics at the VU University Amsterdam as part of the "What Good Markets Are Good For" project. He is author of Get Your Hands Dirty: Essays on Christian Social Thought (and Action) (Wipf & Stock, 2013), Covenant, Causality, and Law: A Study in the Theology of Wolfgang Musculus (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2012) and Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church's Social Witness (Christian's Library Press, 2010), as well as editor of numerous works, including Abraham Kuyper Collected Works in Public Theology. Jordan is also associate director of the Junius Institute for Digital Reformation Research at Calvin Theological Seminary.