July 7, 2003 | Commentary on Religion and Civil Society, Civil Society

The Importance of Believing in Charity

President Bush recently called on Congress to make it easier for religious charities that get federal money to hire people based on their religious affiliation. His action is certain to further inflame civil liberties groups, which for two years have assailed his faith-based initiative as a violation of antidiscrimination laws. They may want to rethink their opposition.


Just as religious groups want staff members to share their most deeply held beliefs and values, secular nonprofit organizations want employees who believe fervently in their mission -- everything from environmental protection to abortion rights. In this sense, the hiring policies of the Human Rights Campaign, a gay organization, are no different from those of the evangelical Salvation Army. Some say the receipt of federal money changes the rules of the game. But if that's true, then Planned Parenthood -- which got $240 million last year in government funds -- could be forced to staff its clinics with pro-life Catholics.


Here's the rub: stripping away the First Amendment rights of religious groups threatens everyone's civil liberties. For African-Americans, denying those protections cuts even deeper. Opponents predict that faith-based hiring would "turn back the clock on civil rights." Representative Robert C. Scott, Democrat of Virginia, who has made a mantra of that claim, has said he would introduce legislation to block the initiative. Yet it's African-American churches -- the birthplace of the civil rights movement -- that have the most to lose.


Why? Because a large majority of black congregations engage in social outreach, especially in urban areas. The African-American Christian tradition alone claims about 65,000 churches and 20 million members. Surveys suggest that these congregations are the most likely to seek government financing for their charitable work.


I've interviewed dozens of ministry leaders, across denominational lines, about their work among the poor. The vast majority believe their staff members should embrace common beliefs and values. Most expect employees to endorse a statement of faith, and they endorse the president's plan. Though they are politically liberal, their religious traditions make them socially conservative: pro-abstinence, pro-marriage and pro-life.


One Pentecostal minister in Boston, Eugene Rivers III, a Democratic supporter of the initiative, says the effort to criminalize the hiring policies of church-based programs would "prevent the delivery of services to this country's black and brown urban poor."


It's not hard to see why. Many of those helped by these groups, after all, need the influence of religious values in their lives. If an organization's workers don't embody these ideals, its ability to care for people effectively will be compromised. So argues Ruben Austria of the Urban Youth Alliance, a Christian agency that pairs church mentors with troubled juveniles in the Bronx. "When you're dealing with kids who are really broken, they need something powerful to change their lives," he told me. "We require that staff be people of faith, who can convince these kids they care about them more than anyone else in the world."


True, there's a danger that some organizations will use their religious exemption as an excuse to fire people they simply don't like. Some will turn away otherwise qualified applicants because of differences over sexual orientation. But these concerns don't trump the freedom of all religious groups to live out their moral vision in a pluralistic society. Indeed, Americans of faith are likely to punish lawmakers who attack their religious institutions. That fact alone might, in the end, inspire a little more charity toward the nation's Good Samaritans.


Joseph Loconte is a fellow in religion at the Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Joseph Loconte William E. Simon Fellow in Religion and a Free Society

Appeared in The New York Times