Faith and works
Religion & Liberty Online

Faith and works

The issue of the federal regulation of non-profit groups, including churches, has meshed with a number of other questions, including allegations of government discrimination against faith-based groups. Charles Colson, founder of Prison Fellowship Ministries, writes of an attack on funding for faith-based initiatives in the New York Times as “typical of what’s been happening in the press and in Congress. Year after year, a Senate minority blocks votes on faith-based legislation. They demand that ministries not ‘discriminate’ by hiring only people of their own faith.”

But this is the inherent danger in taking money from the government (or anyone else for that matter). The tendency is to become increasingly dependent on that revenue source, and to become correspondingly beholden to the interests of the benefactor. If that benefactor is the government, the fight becomes more and more political, as a faith-based group might lobby for greater freedom in hiring, while a secular program might lobby to exclude some of the faith-based competition. In the process, valuable time, funds, and intangible resources are spent politicking.

And if government policies do change disfavorably, a program might face the hard choice of seeking replacement funding elsewhere or acquiescing to the new guidelines. But since much of the focus has been on lobbying government, necessary skills and infrastructure for grassroots fundraising have probably atrophied greatly in the interim. The choice might come down to the collapse of a program or meeting the demands of government.

Churches face similar pressures, in that their dependency on tax-exempt status can become a way for the government to manipulate their activities. A pastor may feel compelled to speak out about a particular policy or political issue, but refrains from doing so out of fear of retribution. In accepting the government’s tax breaks, churches run the risk of compromising their independence.

Karen Woods, director of the Center for Effective Compassion, spoke about many of these kinds of issues in an in-depth interview yesterday on The Inquisition (see mp3 below), a web-based radio program.

The latest issue of Policy Forum, co-authored by Woods, studies how faith influences the behavior of charitable organizations, and finds that “a program’s faith element relates to the people they serve and the type of help they provide, as programs with more explicit and mandatory faith-related elements are likely to be substance-abuse programs.”

The study is based on Acton’s Samaritan Award program, “a national search for ten United States charity programs that receive little to no government funding and that agree that effective charity is rooted in the unique dignity of the human person.” The emphasis on the “little to no government funding” comes from the recognition of the complicating problems that dependence on government funding can bring for faith-based organizations.

I can therefore agree with Colson that “faith-based programs work where secular efforts fail,” and “that the Gospel is the best answer to our social problems.” But such agreement does not mean that we should necessarily seek government funding for our charitable work. It may, in fact, lead us to purposefully avoid it.

Jordan J. Ballor

Jordan J. Ballor (Dr. theol., University of Zurich; Ph.D., Calvin Theological Seminary) is director of research at the Center for Religion, Culture & Democracy, an initiative of the First Liberty Institute. He has previously held research positions at the Acton Institute and Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, and has authored multiple books, including a forthcoming introduction to the public theology of Abraham Kuyper. Working with Lexham Press, he served as a general editor for the 12 volume Abraham Kuyper Collected Works in Public Theology series, and his research can be found in publications including Journal of Markets & Morality, Journal of Religion, Scottish Journal of Theology, Reformation & Renaissance Review, Journal of the History of Economic Thought, Faith & Economics, and Calvin Theological Journal. He is also associate director of the Junius Institute for Digital Reformation Research at Calvin Theological Seminary and the Henry Institute for the Study of Christianity & Politics at Calvin University.