Category: Public Policy

Touting the success of his faith-based initiative last week, President Bush noted that faith-based charities received more than $2 billion last year from the federal government. But even as Bush announced that the Department of Homeland Security would be the 11th agency to establish an office for the faith-based initiative, some groups are finding the money to be a mixed blessing.

An example is The Silver Ring Thing (SRT), which following a settlement between the ACLU and the Department of Health and Human Services, can no longer recieve federal funds under its current program. In this week’s Acton Commentary, “A Golden Opportunity for ‘The Silver Ring Thing’,” I note the temptation facing SRT “to acquiesce to the HHS regulations and attempt to rigorously separate the faith element out of the program.”

I conclude that “the temporary setback of the loss of government funding has the potential to be a long-term opportunity for The Silver Ring Thing,” in the sense that SRT can seek out private sources of funding and evade the strings that are inevitably attached to government funding.

“You can’t be a faith-based program if you don’t practice your faith,” said President Bush. He also said, according to the AP, “It used to be that groups were prohibited from receiving any federal funding whatsoever because they had a cross or a star or a crescent on the wall. And that’s changed, for the better.”

We can hope, however, that the faith element in religious charities is not merely restricted to mere display of a religious symbol, but pervades the charitable work of the organization. It’s this “damaging form of secularization: the kind that separates Christian faith from works,” that The Silver Ring Thing must resist.

David Kuo, a former deputy director of the White House faith-based office, criticized the administration for allowing the initiative to become “a whisper of what was promised.” Acton senior fellow Marvin Olasky, in an interview on NPR’s All Things Considered, expressed disappointment with the lower priority the faith-based initiative from the Bush White House.

But at least part of the difficulty the program faces comes from the problems posed by the enforcement of secularizing regulations by government bureaucracy. When asked about the impediments that governmental regulations put on their charitable work, one non-profit worker responded: “The complexities of the laws affecting part-time workers have made it impossible for us to hire candidates we could afford to pay. We have been amazed to learn that hiring even one part-time employee makes us a ‘pen-pal’ with a complicated array of government agencies.”

Read the whole commentary here.

Last Wednesday, I was privileged to attend the Samaritan Awards Gala in Washington, D.C. I have to say up front that Acton’s Effective Compassion events are probably the most enjoyable for me to attend because invariably one comes into contact with a group of very special, very dedicated people who are completely devoted to what our society would term “lost causes,” and having great success.

Ken Ortman

While there were a number of award-winning programs at the Gala this year, I’d like to take some time to focus on the 2005 Samaritan Award Grand Prize Winners, Ken and Sheila Ortman of Lives Under Construction Boys Ranch in Lampe, Missouri. Ken and Sheila were joined in D.C. by their daughter Melissa, who serves as the Development Director for the Ranch, and 7 young men who are currently residents in their program.

Sheila Ortman

Ken, Sheila and Melissa are wonderful people – remarkably kind, decent, and humble – who are doing amazing work with young men who come out of shockingly difficult circumstances. They are hard workers – Ken remarked during a conversation that he couldn’t imagine working at a job like mine, which involves a lot of sitting at a desk – who moved from their South Dakota farm to southwestern Missouri in order to start a new life working with troubled boys. And they are successful – the LUC program has a 92 percent success rate over the last 20 years, turning many young men away from lives of crime and substance abuse and toward a productive life in society. They do so by establishing a structured environment within which the boys can learn respect for God, authority figures, and gain a proper view of themselves as persons.

Melissa Ortman

We had the chance to meet 7 of the young men who live at the ranch, and the transformation in their lives is evident and remarkable. By all outward appearances, these boys were just like any other group of young people touring Washington, D.C. You’d never know that each of them had likely had severe drug or behavioral problems and numerous encounters with the law. They were a group of normal, if somewhat rambunctious teens.

The LUC Bunch on the Mall in Washington, D.C.

It is truly a blessing to meet people like the Ortmans, and it was great as well to watch the boys – many of whom were on their first trip to a large city. As I noted earlier, I always enjoy Acton’s Effective Compassion events, but having these young men along added a spirit and sense of adventure to this trip that will make it unforgettable for me.

If you haven’t done so in the past, I encourage you to check out the many fine charities like LUC Boys Ranch that are in our online Samaritan Guide, which is an excellent resource for anyone looking for effective private charities across the United States. Many of the programs in the guide are very small, but doing amazing work, and are well worth your attention and support.

I had an opportunity to talk with a few of the boys and with Ken, Sheila and Melissa. To hear my conversation with the Ortmans, click here (4 mb mp3 file). To hear from the boys, click here (1.9 mb mp3 file).

Blog author: jballor
Tuesday, March 14, 2006
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According to The Church Report, a new resource has been released which offers churches guidelines for keeping their activities and functions within the letter of the law. As non-profit organizations, churches are held to the same standard as registered charities and cannot engage in certain forms of public speech.

A report by The Rutherford Institute, “The Rights of Churches and Political Involvement” (PDF), examines in detail what the restrictions are for churches. There are two main areas: “first, no substantial part of the organization’s activities may consist of carrying on propaganda or otherwise attempting to influence legislation; and second, the organization may not participate in political campaigning in opposition to, or on behalf of, any candidate for public office.” For the purposes of this discussion, I’m going to focus on the former case rather than the latter, since I take it for granted that churches shouldn’t be institutionally involved in campaigning for a specific candidate. For more on this second aspect of the law, see this post on the use of church directories by political parties, passed on by Joe Carter.

In its summary of the first type of restriction, the report states:

In short, only one reported court decision has found a religious organization in violation of section 501(c)(3) by engaging in “substantial” legislative activities. The IRS, however, refuses to abide by any precise standards, such as a percentage rule, to measure when “substantial” legislative activities have occurred. Hence, a church or religious organization seeking to acquire or maintain a tax-exempt status must be aware that there is always some risk that its attempt to influence legislation will prompt the IRS to pursue an audit and perhaps even revoke its tax-exempt status.

It goes on to say that “one risk adverse approach might be for a church to report pending legislation to church members, without proposing, supporting or opposing any legislation.”

The bottom line seems to be this: “Tax exemptions for churches and religious organizations are a privilege and not a constitutional right. In fact, to acquire and maintain this privilege, churches and religious organizations may have to forsake heretofore protected constitutional rights under the First Amendment.”

This means that if it is something that is germane to the proclamation of the gospel, a church must be willing to lose its tax-exempt status. The government could potentially use tax-free status as leverage to keep churches quiet about political activity. If the pastor and consistory feel that the issue is one of religious imperative, something like a status confessionis, the church must resist the temptation to impose restrictions on its own speech in the interest of maintaining a privileged position.

This clearly calls for prudence and wisdom on the part of the church leadership. I’m not suggesting that churches simply cast off their tax-exempt status on a whim. But when the issue comes down to one of keeping silent over clear moral evils or losing their special status, churches must choose the latter. Their ultimate allegiance must be to Christ and not Caesar.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in the context of the enforcement of the Aryan clauses prohibiting pastors of Jewish heritage from ministry in the state churches, writes of the rare instance in which the church must “put a spoke in the wheel itself.” In his essay, “The Church and the Jewish Question,” he says, “Such action would be direct political action, and is only possible and desirable when the church sees the state fail in its function of creating law and order, i.e. when it sees the state unrestrainedly bring about too much or too little law and order. In both these cases it must see the existence of the state, and with it its own existence, threatened.”

He continues to argue that “there would be too little law if any group of subjects were deprived of their rights, too much where the state intervened in the character of the church and its proclamation, e.g. in the forced exclusion of baptised Jews from our Christian congregations or in the prohibition of our mission to the Jews. Here the Christian church would find itself in statu confessionis and here the state would be in the act of negating itself. A state which includes within itself a terrorised church has lost its most faithful servant.”

One such instance of the state making “too much law” and intervening “in the character of the church and its proclamation” would be the criminalization of certain types of speech as hateful or offensive.

Citing a recent OECD report, the EUObserver says that European schools are falling behind their counterparts in the US and Asia.

The main reason: a governmental obsession with equality that prevents investment and innovation in education, especially at the university level.

“The US outspends Europe on tertiary level education by more than 50% per student, and much of that difference is due to larger US contributions from tuition-paying students and the private sector,” noted the OECD paper.

Here’s how the news story concludes:

Despite European ideals like equality and equity, several OECD’s studies reveal that “social background plays a larger role in determining a student’s performance in countries such as Germany, France and Italy than in the US.”

“Europeans from difficult socio-economic backgrounds don’t receive the same educational opportunities as children from rich and middle-class families,” notes the paper.

This account accords pretty well with my own observations in Italy. The educational and economic mess created by governmental interference, protectionism and deference to trade unions results in a system where only the well-to-do and the well-connected end up with any sort of opportunity. If you happen to be born outside of Rome or Milan or to a poor family, tough luck.

From what I can tell, there’s not much of an educational choice movement in Europe but there ought to be.

This is probably not the best move for a state that has been among the worst in the nation in terms of unemployment: “Lawmakers in the Michigan House of Representatives are preparing to vote on a proposed hike in the minimum wage to nearly $7 an hour.” The state Senate passed the measure late last week, so the House’s agreement would put the matter into the hands of Gov. Granholm.

According to the Office of Labor Market Information, Michigan’s unemployment rate for January was 6.2%, which puts it in a tie for fourth-worst in the nation. Believe it or not, this is a notable improvement for the state, which at various points in the previous two years had been at the top of the unemployment rankings, hovering around 7%. The national unemployment rate is 4.7%.

Blog author: jballor
Friday, March 10, 2006
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Seth Godin contends today that “most people don’t really care about price.” He uses a couple of arguments that involve aspects of convenience, and so he concludes, “price is a signal, a story, a situational decision that is never absolute. It’s just part of what goes into making a decision, no matter what we’re buying.”

He’s right, in the sense that everyone will not choose the service or item with the lower price at all times and in all places. But what he doesn’t make explicit is that convenience is taken into account in pricing, so that part of what price signals is the convenience factor.

And the convenience factor is really just about the personal valuation of time. And we all know, of course, that “time is money.” And that’s really what Seth’s examples prove.

The CrunchyCon blog at NRO is currently discussing the issue of factory farming, which is apparently covered and described in some detail in Dreher’s book (my copy currently is on order, having not been privy to the “crunchy con”versation previously).

A reader accuses Dreher of being in favor of big-government, because “he thinks we ought to ‘ban or at least seriously reform’ factory farming.” Caleb Stegall responds that he, at least, is not a big-government crunchy con, and that this was made clear “early on.” He issues a somewhat strange rejoinder a bit later.

But I think there’s something to the claim. It is one thing to argue that factory farming of the type Dreher describes is immoral, which as Frederica Mathews-Green relates involves “endless rows of pigs in cages too small for them either to stand or lie down; limbs protruding into adjoining cages get wounded and broken. But this damage is ignored, because it won’t affect the production of meat. The pig only has to cling to life long enough to be worth slaughtering.”

It’s quite another to argue that government should take a primary or definitive role in banning such immoral activity. As Aquinas notes, this calls for wisdom.

The purpose of human law is to lead men to virtue, not suddenly, but gradually. Wherefore it does not lay upon the multitude of imperfect men the burdens of those who are already virtuous, viz. that they should abstain from all evil. Otherwise these imperfect ones, being unable to bear such precepts, would break out into yet greater evils: thus it is written (Pr. 30:33): ‘He that violently bloweth his nose, bringeth out blood’; and (Mt. 9:17) that if ‘new wine,’ i.e. precepts of a perfect life, ‘is put into old bottles,’ i.e. into imperfect men, ‘the bottles break, and the wine runneth out,’ i.e. the precepts are despised, and those men, from contempt, break into evils worse still (Summa Theologica, II.1.96.ii).

As I summarize, “In cases where the law would cause greater evil to be done, it is not prudent to criminalize the behavior.” Once the moral permissibility or impermissibility of an act has been settled upon, it does not settle the question of government’s responsibility.

It may well be that factory farming is disgusting and morally repulsive, but it also may be that the way to deal with it is not through government prohibition but through market mechanisms, i.e. morally-informed consumer choice. There is an underlying current that I sometimes detect in the depiction of crunchy conservatism that seems to confuse consumerism and materialism with capitalism, and accordingly ignores non-governmental market-based solutions to moral issues.

The news from across the pond today is that the UK government is announcing that it will miss its target set in 1999 to reduce the number of children in poverty by 1 million. According to the BBC, “Department for Work and Pension figures show the number of children in poverty has fallen by 700,000 since 1999, missing the target by 300,000.”

This has resulted in the typical responses when government programs fail: calls to “redouble” efforts and to increase funding, spin the results as a measure of success, and acknowledge that there is “still much to be done.”

But one member of the government seems to have an idea of the right solution. “The Conservatives’ David Ruffley, spokesman on welfare reform, said it was ‘disappointing’. He said his party agreed on the aim but not the means of reducing child poverty.”

“Child poverty is a scourge in society. And the numbers are too high. But what I think needs to be done is more creative and imaginative thinking,” he said.

Government should not be at the front lines of the fight against poverty for one simple reason: it does not create wealth. Entrepreneurs and commercial enterprises do. And as such government certainly should not be the only element in combatting poverty.

David Laws MP, Liberal Democrat Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary, gets at the heart of the issue when he says, “It is no surprise the Government is failing to deliver when the CSA is in chaos, tax credits are a mess and our lone parents employment rate is one of the lowest in Europe” (emphasis added).

That final point is crucial. Unless the government is going to create jobs for these parents in one of its many departments and bureaus, it falls to businesses to employ them. This is how it should be, of course, and any responsible poverty fighting strategy needs to reckon with this reality.

“It is the highest impertinence and presumption, therefore, in kings and ministers, to pretend to watch over the economy of private people, and to restrain their expense, either by sumptuary laws, or by prohibiting the importation of foreign luxuries. They are themselves always, and without any exception, the greatest spendthrifts in society. Let them look well after their own expense, and they may safely trust private people with theirs.” –Adam Smith

It’s nice to know our leaders are no longer like that.

In the Acton Commentary this week, Dr. Samuel Gregg examines the “Historic Catholic Statement of Principles” released by House Democrats last week. Following is a brief statement of purpose from the official press release:

…Signed by 55 House Democrats, the statement documents how their faith influences them as lawmakers, making clear their commitment to the basic principles at the heart of Catholic social teaching and their bearing on policy – whether it is increasing access to education for all or pressing for real health care reform, taking seriously the decision to go to war, or reducing poverty. Above all, the document expresses the signers’ commitment to the dignity of life and their belief that government has moral purpose.

Dr. Gregg looks at the statement and questions the legitimacy of claiming to promote the dignity of life while condoning abortion and embryonic stem-cell research. John Paul II wrote, “[i]t is impossible to further the common good without acknowledging and defending the right to life, upon which all the other inalienable rights of individuals are founded and from which they develop” (Evangelium Vitae no.101). How can you commit to furthering the dignity of life, embracing the social guidance of the Church, and then blatantly disregard this fundamental truth?

Read Dr. Gregg’s commentary here.