More on the faith-based initiative
Religion & Liberty Online

More on the faith-based initiative

My commentary last week on the situation of the Silver Ring Thing has occasioned some conversation on the Blog (here, here, here, and here). The consensus on the faith-based initiative seems to be that, in the words of William L. Anderson, they “were pointing out at the beginning that this was a bad idea, and that taking the state’s money ultimately would mean that the state would be interfering with the larger mission of these religious groups.”

Contrariwise, Joseph Knippenberg, who blogs at No Left Turns and is a professor at Oglethorp University, writes in this week’s The American Enterprise online column that the faith-based initiative is being undermined by partisan Democrats and that it will have to continue under the diligent faithfulness of Republicans.

Citing the differences between the Republican and Democratic approaches, he writes of the former, “because the shekels come without unnecessary shackles, the effect of government funding isn’t necessarily homogenizing or secularizing. In a nutshell, this co-religionist hiring exemption enables government to cooperate with, but not dominate, a vigorous and diverse private philanthropic sector.”

The danger is, in Knippenberg’s view, that the faith-based initiative will become dominated by Democratic partisans, who “would force every government contractor into essentially the same bureaucratic mold. Every recipient of government funding would ultimately be simply an extension of the government, offering more or less the same services in more or less the same setting.”

But even if Knippenberg is right, and there is this vast difference between the approaches of the two parties, it merely serves to underscore my point about the unreliability of government funding. He is responding in part to this Washington Post story which notes the boon that Bush’s faith-based initiative has been to certain conservative-minded charities.

As an example, Thomas B. Edsall writes of Heritage Community Services in Charleston, S.C.

A decade ago, Heritage was a tiny organization with deeply conservative social philosophy but not much muscle to promote it. An offshoot of an antiabortion pregnancy crisis center, Heritage promoted abstinence education at the county fair, local schools and the local Navy base. The budget was $51,288.

By 2004, Heritage Community Services had become a major player in the booming business of abstinence education. Its budget passed $3 million — much of it in federal grants distributed by Bush’s Department of Health and Human Services — supporting programs for students in middle school and high school in South Carolina, Georgia and Kentucky.

So some, perhaps many, charities have enjoyed a time of plenty under the current administration. And Knippenberg warns of the sharp differences between the approaches of Republicans and Democrats. This begs the question: What are these charities to do if (horror of horrors) Democrats win either or both chambers of Congress and/or the White House?

These charities will have come to count on federal support for their programs, and they will be faced with the difficult options of giving up government money and severely downsizing their services (which presumably will violate the trust that they have established with those they help), they can continue to depend on government money by secularizing their programs, or they can seek private funding sources to cover the gap. The last of these three options may be the best, but it also raises significant difficulties if the charity leadership has not prepared for such a need.

As we have seen in so many other cases, and the federal spending on education through the Department of Education and the power wielded by the No Child Left Behind program is just one example, overt time groups that take government money tend to become dependent on that money. When administrations or bureaucracies shift policies, the recipients have become beholden to that source of funding. In short, even if Knippenberg is right, this is just one more reason for charities not to depend on the fickleness of politics for funding.

The Silver Ring Thing is a perfect example of this. Having counted on government support for a number of years, the group is making the tough decision to wean itself off federal dollars. SRT founder Denny Pattyn has said that following the fallout of the ACLU agreement, the group will seek no future government grants: “We did not want to become dependent on federal funding.”

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.