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.

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.


  • Anthony

    Living in The Kingdom of God ?

    To belong to this kingdom is to crucify the fleshly desire to live out of self-interest and tribal interest, and to thus crucify the fallen impulse to protect these interests through violence. To belong to this Revolutionary Kingdom is to purge your heart of “all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice “(Eph. 4:31) however ” justified” and understandable these sentiments might be. To belong to this counterkingdom is to “live in love” as Christ loved us and gave Himself up for us “(Eph 5:2)”. It is to live the life of Christ, the life manifests the truth that it is better to serve than to be served and better to Die than to Kill. It is, therefore,better to opt out of the kingdom of the world war machine and manifest a radically different, beautiful, loving way of life. To refuse to kill for patriotic reasons is to show “we actuality take our identity in Christ more seriously than our identity with the empire “USA”, the nation. state, or the ethnic terror cell whence we come.

    So while I respect the sincerity and courage of christians who may disagree and feel it is their duty to defend their country with violence, I honestly see no way to condone a christian’s decision to kill on behalf of any country or for any other reason.

    My name is Anthony Hall .It looks like the Christian nationalist people Do teach “taking america back for God’. In the america Civil War can you tell me did God the Father and His Son Christ,Bless the North or The South,We where a “So called Christina Nation”.at that time?

    IN Luck 4 the Devil tempted Christ by showing him “all the kingdoms “govtments”: of the world.To you I will give
    their glory and all this authority,for it has been given over to me,and I give it to anyone I please.If then will worship me,it will all be yours”God does not what this Nation, Please tell me why you wont it .

    The slogan “one nation under god” Lk.4 tells us that all nations are run by the Devil, Not Christ.: “In The Devil we trust”
    The Kingdom people need to see the world “USA” through the eyes of the Kingdom of God,the eyes of
    faith,Not through the eyes of the kingdom “govtments”: of the world, that are run by the Devil.

    Throughout our history,most americans have assumed “Gods on our side”.In our minds-as so often in our sanctuaries-the Cross and the american flag stand side by side.Our allegiance to God tends to go hand in hand with our allegiance to country.Consequently, many christens who take their faith seriously see themselves as the religious guardians of a Christian homeland,america,they believe,is a holy city set on a hill and the church’s job is to keep it shining.
    Read John 18:36. My Kingdom is not of this world “earth” We are to serve His Kingdom..

    1. Devotion to the interests or culture of one’s nation.Serving Self is not what Christ is all about.
    2. The belief that nations will benefit from acting independently rather than collectively, emphasizing national rather than international goals.
    3. Aspirations for national independence in a country under foreign domination.
    4.nationalistic – devotion to the interests or culture of a particular nation including promoting the interests of one country over those of others; “nationalist aspirations”; “minor nationalistic differences”Serving Self is not what Christ is all about

    If you have read this,I thank you for your time.

    Peace in Christ
    Anthony Hall