I don't ususally place here items that I wrote years ago. However, in rereading this essay, I find it still reflects my positions and has not been rendered inapplicable or inaccurate in the intervening ten years since I first jotted it down. And though not many people actually follow my blog (due to my laziness in not writing very much) I decided to repost this here so I could access it more easily in the future.
(First posted May 20, 2001)
Our new president wants to channel some social service resources through faith-based organizations. His rationale is that churches and religious organizations, which are supposedly predisposed to serving "the needy," should be empowered to do so on an equitable, competitive basis with secular social service entities.
Bush seems to be asking why churches and church members should be forced to pay taxes to help the less fortunate and then be expected to devote scarce church money to similar or competing social service ministries.
The president stands behind polls that show Joe Citizen trusts the church down the street to provide high-quality, waste-free soup kitchens or clothing pantries or after-school child care. Those polled supposedly prefer such FBO services to similar government-run service providers. And a big part of this preference is grounded in the widely held belief that all government agencies are rife with waste and bureaucratic inefficiency.
So is this a "win-win" proposition as touted by President Bush? Can churches, whose effectiveness is hampered by oppressive tax burdens on their members, effectively use the deep pockets of Uncle Sam? Can they accomplish their mission and keep separate their efforts to perform social and religious ministries?
Can the government see its goals accomplished with no downside? Are FBOs 100-percent effective and efficient when compared to Uncle Sam's direct efforts?
These questions give rise to other questions. Why do churches need tax revenue resources to accomplish their perceived social service goals? Is God not sufficient to provide? Is it correct to assume that God intended to provide through the auspices of Caesar?
What church would not have enough resources to minister within its neighborhood and vision if church members followed their church's own teachings regarding tithes and offerings? What church would not have enough resources if its members devoted their personal "vice" money (liquor, tobacco, gambling, etc.) to ministry uses?
Why and how did governments ever get involved in social service ministries in the first place? Governments initially functioned to maintain peace, enforce laws and build roads. The U.S. Constitution does not mention feeding the hungry, housing the homeless and caring for orphans. These obligations didn't arise until it was determined churches and families failed to meet those needs. But the failure of churches cannot be laid at the feet of high tax rates and too much government regulation. Prior to government intervention, churches and preachers were talking the talk, but not walking the walk.
So what would change in 2001? How would interested churches better meet the needs of their communities than current secular service organizations?
How can institutions that preside over the most racially segregated hour of the week hope to form a loving, multiracial, self-sufficient community?
How long would it be before "60 Minutes" exposed churches that have taken tax money earmarked for social services to build fancy gymnasiums for affluent congregations and staffs? Who can guarantee that no church would accept social services funds and subsequently purchase luxury mini-vans for their youth programs?
Who believes that government money would not come with government strings attached? Would faith-based organizations be expected, forced, required to compromise on how they tolerate or condone sinful lifestyles because of federal "equal opportunity/equal access" requirements?
Maybe Jesus knew what he was talking about. It seems to me that "render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's and unto God the things that are God's" is still a valid approach today. Faith-based organizations should continue encouraging followers to minister in their communities - but not with tax revenue. On the other hand, governments should continue meeting the needs of the unserved.
This need not be a case of "either/or." Both efforts are appropriate and worthwhile. Each entity, though, needs the integrity and legitimacy afforded by maintaining the historical separation of church and state.
Dennis Nave is postmaster for the U.S. Post Office in Canyon.