Saturday, February 11, 2006


By William Fisher

Small government is one of the golden tenets of American conservatism. Small government is more efficient. The smaller the government, the more power will be returned to the people. The smaller the government, the freer our people will be of bureaucratic intrusion, regulation and control. The smaller the government, the closer lawmaking will be to the ‘will of the people’.

There is much to commend this Jeffersonian construct – notwithstanding that it often chooses to ignore the many roles small government simply cannot play in modern society and the many benefits we all receive from big government.

But I am struck by the eagerness of at least one faction of American conservatism is to ‘rise above principle’ when they find it convenient.

Nowhere is this hypocrisy more naked than in the cheerleading of the religious right for the Bush Administration’s Faith-Based Initiative.

For those who may have been tuned to another channel for the past five years, the Faith-Based Initiative is a program President George W. Bush set up in 2001 to provide Federal grants to religiously affiliated charities. Since that time, these charities have received millions of dollars in taxpayer funding from Federal departments and agencies.

I have had the opportunity to witness the work of some of these faith-based charities firsthand, and it has been outstanding. Catholic Charities, for example, carries out a multitude of tasks under contract to the U.S. Agency for International Development in some of the most inhospitable venues in the developing world. Other religiously-affiliated groups will be remembered for their splendid performance in providing help to victims of the tsunami.

The work of the overwhelming majority of these and many other similar groups is not about religion or political philosophy. It is about providing food and shelter, or introducing best practices in agriculture, education and public health, or organizing micro-credit programs for the “least of these’.

So what’s the problem?

First, some of these charities have abused their missions by proselytizing. They have used cataclysmic disasters to spread their personal Gospels. For example, more than a few distributed copies of the King James Bible and Jesus T-shirts to tsunami survivors in predominantly Muslim communities. Others have received grants to conduct clearly evangelical programs for prison inmates in the U.S.

Second, some religious charities have been involved in reproductive health programs – and have slavishly toed the Bush ‘abstinence only’ line in providing family planning counseling to women.

But, beyond doubt, the biggest problem with the Faith-Based Initiative is that it allows fund recipients to practice clearly unlawful discrimination in their hiring practices. The Bush plan says if you’re, say, a Baptist organization, it’s OK for you to hire only Baptists, or if your organization is Christian, you can reject employment applications from Jews.

That’s why the Bush Administration has never been able to get the Faith-Based Initiative though Congress, and the President had to launch it by Executive Order.

The question Congress has been unable to answer is: If the aim of a government-funded charity is not proselytizing, what difference should it make if I’m a Muslim working for a Christian organization?

Religiously-affiliated charities ought to stop and reflect on what they’re getting from the government – and what they’re giving up in the process.

Money is what they’re getting. But a conservative tenet every bit as central as small government is community support. Private, individual philanthropy has a long and rich tradition in American culture. Many church-related groups don’t need public funding. And those that are not running mega-churches or multi-million dollar televangelist enterprises should be looking to their own communities for support.

What these groups are giving up by accepting Federal funds is even more important: Their credibility to speak out on issues that may be unpopular, but that cry out for public dialogue. While they may be comfortable with the values of the Bush Administration today, Bush is not our last president.

What reminded me of this issue is Taylor Branch’s splendid book, “At Canaan's Edge: America in the King Years, 1965-68”, about Martin Luther King. Branch reminds readers that MLK always had one foot in the Scriptures and the other foot in the Constitution, and never confused the two.

The religious right ought to ask itself if America would ever have had a Civil Rights movement if Dr. King and his allies had been on the government payroll. It was the separation of church and state – not its amalgamation – that empowered that movement to speak truth to power.

Which is exactly what the religious community is uniquely qualified to be doing.