Today (February, 20th 2001) marks the opening of George W. Bush's solution to tackling social issues, The Office of Faith Based and Community Initatives. This office will provide federal funding to religious organizations for programs concerning such issues as literacy, substance abuse and sexual abstinence.

This new office has been the subject of much controversy. When George W. Bush signed the office into existence, leaders from the Christian, Jewish and Islamic communities were present, however, many people feel that paints a rather inaccurate portrait of religion in America.
No one debates that these faiths represent the majority of Americans, but to millions of Americans who do not fit into these groups the outlook is bleak. Geroge W. Bush has been quite vocal about which groups he considers to be valid faiths, particularly against Wiccans and Scientologists.

Even within the Office, schisms have already formed. The Jewish anti-defamation league has already made motions to prevent any federal funding to The Nation of Islam, whose leader Louis Farrakhan has a history of antisemitism. Also, the question unasked by the media, seems to be how the atheist community is to access aid, without having to be subject to the teachings of faith based groups that they may find objectionable.

In a ruling over draft exemptions The Supreme Court defined religion as "a sincere and meaningful belief occupying in the life of its possessor a place parallel to that filled by God of those admittedly qualified for exemption". This is a rather vague view of religion that doesn't seem to match that of the Bush presidency. Bush has also stated that the government would do nothing to hinder the teaching of a faith in the process of these community services. It seems that millions of Americans without religion, or who belong to faiths which lack significant representation or oranization to form programs of their own are going to be left high and dry. It remains to be seen, however, how this Office will impact the funding on non-faith based charities operating in the US.

The general opinion so far seems to be that "faith-based" organizations in the United States don't want the federal funds that George W. Bush is offering them. The reason, of course, is separation of church and state -- for these organizations to use the funds, they fear that they would have to change exclusively to charity and humanitarian work and eliminate evangelism or outreach.

In fact, a federal law to promote just this sort of thing was passed back in 1996, and staggeringly few states or organizations have taken the government up on it. The new Office Bush has created is simply part of his effort to expand that law further. It was called "charitable choice" back then and was issued as part of an overhaul of the national welfare program, allowing groups to receive tax dollars without changing their religious charters, provided the government's money wasn't used to promote their religion. Five years later, thirty-one states have still not used these federal funds, fourteen report a handful of government contracts, and only five have fully embraced it.

The organizations are reluctant to accept federal funds because of that "no religious use" clause, and rightfully so. Even when these organizations aren't directly promoting their faith through their humanitarian activities, the indirect connection is there. A soup kitchen may want to distribute copies of the Bible or share in one-to-one outreach; a larger organization like Catholic Charities may make efforts to connect those they help with nearby churches for additional physical and spiritual support. Using federal funds would mean they'd have to curtail these outreach efforts or else separate them very, very carefully in their bank accounts.

On the whole, most organizations believe it's not worth the trouble. They've been getting along fine without government sponsorship so far, on the Biblical belief that "God will provide." Having their evangelical hands tied just to take advantage of more mammon goes against everything a truly faith-based organization believes in.

The other problem with the current debate over faith based organizations receiving funds from the federal government is that it is unclear just how these faith based programs are going to help. The problem is not so much that their aren’t programs trying to provide drug counseling, literacy programs, or any number of other social services already, as that these programs do not have enough money in the first place. Increasing the number of programs eligible to receive funding is not going to help unless they also increase the total amount of money that is going to these programs.

Last summer I spent most of time processing paperwork and creating a database to help the people in the social services department of the law firm I was working for deal with the huge back load of prisoners unable to be released from prison because the state legislator had cut back funding for drug rehab now that it was no longer useful as a campaign issue. The problem was not that the city lacked functioning drug rehab programs, and therefore needed the religious community to step in and fill the vacuum. The problem is that funding all these social service programs is unpopular. Since Bush and company don’t seem interested in increasing the problem, or really making dramatic changes in the over all system that creates social problems, (the war on drugs itself, poverty, failing education etc. etc. ) it seems strongly unlikely that some church affiliated programs are going to magically save the day. Especially considering that as mblase pointed out in order to get the funding they have to give up any strong religious message and so lose any theoretical benefit that might come from being connected to a religious message if such a benefit exists.

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