January 31, 2001 | Commentary on Religion and Civil Society, Civil Society

ED013101b: Governement and Religion: Have Faith

Thomas Jefferson, who famously advocated a "wall of separation" between church and state, once was asked why he attended church, since he rejected traditional Christianity. He replied that as president he felt obliged to show public support for religion. "No nation has ever yet existed or been governed without religion," he said. "Nor can be."

Critics of President Bush's efforts to promote the work of religious groups fighting poverty should heed Jefferson's words. While some raise legitimate concerns about the Constitution's ban on establishing religion, too many seem positively allergic to religious belief and the charitable work it inspires. They tout laws that either marginalize faith-based groups or secularize them by demanding they offer government-style assistance-impersonal, bureaucratic and emptied of moral content.

President Bush clearly intends to shake up this secular status quo. While the liberal welfare state has turned some charities into government puppets, conservatism welcomes them as equal partners. What's emerging is a bold strategy to make government more faith-friendly.

Start with money. The president knows private charity won't replace government, but he does want to stimulate charitable giving. With support from Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., he announced a plan for a $500 charitable tax credit and a charity deduction for those who don't itemize on their tax returns (almost three out of every four filers). That could boost contributions to all charitable groups-secular and religious-by billions of dollars a year.

Then there's the government's regulatory maze, which thwarts the outreach of many private charities. Vowing to "clear away the bureaucratic barriers" to church-state cooperation, President Bush signed an executive order establishing offices at five federal agencies to review rules considered unfriendly to nonprofits. (One example is the prohibition against using religious belief as a factor in hiring: Charity leaders argue sensibly that denying their right to employ people who share their values is a one-way ticket to secularization.)

The most controversial part of the president's agenda is a plan to extend the protections of the 1996 "charitable choice" law to all federal programs that help the needy. That law allows religious groups to compete on an equal basis with secular agencies for federal anti-poverty funds-without compromising their spiritual beliefs.

Critics charge that this amounts to a "radical assault" on the separation of church and state. But what's radical is the attempt to withhold public support from only those groups that bring with them the love of God as they reach out to needy families. And what's incredible is the notion that a dime of public money to Mother Teresa's Sisters of Charity puts us on the slippery slope to a modern theocracy.

There are tested ways to keep taxpayer money from funding religious activities such as Bible study, worship services, or evangelism. Religious agencies involved with government can use private dollars and volunteers for those activities. Congregations can set up separate accounts or establish distinct non-profit agencies to ensure that public funds don't commingle with church budgets. It's obviously working, because hundreds of these partnerships have appeared since charitable choice became law, involving thousands of congregations. Yet only four lawsuits have surfaced. That's a rate of one per year. Where's the theocracy?

Opponents focus on the proselytizing mission of some organizations and worry about religious coercion. But services are offered voluntarily, to people of any faith or no faith. Critics seem to neglect the real people who are helped by religious groups: the children whose mothers or fathers are in prison, families trapped in generational welfare, women working as prostitutes to support their drug habits.

A government check alone won't help these people. What they need most are surrogate fathers, child-care volunteers, mentors to steer them out of gangs, friends to sit with them through a long night without drugs. What they need, put simply, is relentless, sacrificial love. They need people whose creed is like the one found in James 1:27: "Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is … to look after orphans and widows in their distress."

Few would deny that the most reliable source of such help comes from our faith communities. Is there no way to create more support for their efforts? President Bush is certain there is, and he's determined to do so in a way that respects the Constitution while guarding the spiritual integrity of churches and religious charities. Profound challenges lie ahead, but if faced honestly, we just might transform government's "culture of disbelief" into one that is more humane and effective.

Joseph Loconte is the William E. Simon Fellow in Religion and a Free Society at The Heritage Foundation and author of "Seducing the Samaritan: How Government Contracts Are Reshaping Social Services."

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