Faith-based Initiative a Bad Idea by John S. Compere (April 2001)

The current administration’s proposed legislation to grant money from federal tax coffers to “faith-based organizations” to help provide services to various needy groups should be studied carefully . . . and then voted down! Unless, in the unlikeliest of outcomes, there is some way to guarantee absolutely that none of this tax money would be used for religious indoctrination, either actual or implied.

I cannot imagine how such a guarantee could be made–or policed.

It is not that I am against the activity of churches and other faith-based groups in remediating human suffering. Quite the contrary. I wish a much larger percentage of the budget of religious groups was invested in such “good Samaritan” activities instead of in the usual “pad the pews” kind of expenditure. More power to the many church programs that are designed to help those in need.

My concern is that we must be “Simon” pure in our respect for the separation of church and state that the Founding Fathers wisely wrote into our Constitution. Jefferson and Madison were quite clear that state-sponsored religion leads to incredible abuse of individual freedom of conscience, a sine qua non of the land of the free.

Joe Lieberman’s reported statement during the recent presidential campaign that “freedom of religion doesn’t mean freedom from religion” is dead wrong. It means both or either.

Although many of the early European settlers of this continent were motivated by the desire to flee religious persecution, they were not always careful, once having gained freedom for themselves, to allow others to dissent from their own religious views. But by the time of the American Revolution and the subsequent drafting of the Constitution, it was clear to the framers that all faiths should be allowed and respected and that none should be officially promoted or sponsored.

The path of granting tax money to religious organizations is a slippery slope, however well-intentioned the proposal. Funds in most such organizations are fungible, meaning that money used in one activity is interchangeable with money used in another activity. It is easy to see how $1,000 of tax money for a nonsectarian part of a program frees up a similar $1,000 from adherents for the religious aspect of a program, effectively subsidizing the religious contributions with tax dollars.

Further worries from some religious leaders also deserve careful attention. Such as the possibility (likelihood?) that with federal dollars comes federal control, a quick way to dilute the essential elements of such programs. Another potential outcome stems from a predictable psychological phenomenon, namely that when easy (read that “from the tax coffers”) money appears on the horizon, charitable giving by members and adherents tends to dwindle. The idea that “if the government is going to do it, I don’t need to deprive myself to make it happen” is as old as organized government itself.

Another concern is whether fringe religious movements, like Louis Farrakhan’s group, which endorses racial enmity, or L. Ron Hubbard’s Scientology movement, which has a ton of philosophical ambiguities, would be included. The answer was given that if a group preached hate, it wouldn’t be included. But who makes those decisions? And is it smart to grant that kind of power to fallible human beings with their own biases and agendas? Hardly!

There is no disputing the evidence that many faith-based programs have generated outstanding results. Whether these results are actually due to the underlying philosophy of the group sponsoring the program (as opposed to the fact that somebody seems to care and that participants begin to really believe things can be better) is immaterial. So long as the programs are entirely voluntary and the money used to support them is entirely voluntary, it essentially doesn’t matter why a given program works, only that it works.

But the dangers of beginning to subsidize with tax dollars humanitarian programs that have a religious belief system central to their method and mission are very real. The time in recent human history when religion and government were inextricably entwined is not referred to as the Dark Ages for nothing. When a scientist like Galileo, whose telescopic sightings supported Copernicus’ theory that the earth revolved around the sun, was placed under house arrest for the last eight years of his life because his scientific opinions were not consonant with accepted religious belief, this began to signal the end of such a dark period. But a return to such insistence on religiously “correct” positions is not totally unthinkable. Consider what has happened in Iran and Afghanistan in recent years when the dominant religion came to power.

Religious belief, or lack of it, must remain a private matter with no sanctioned government support or involvement whatsoever.

Religious humanitarian programs are alive and well. May their tribe increase. But let’s tell the government “thanks, but no thanks.” And let’s keep trying to make life better for as many people as we can, whether such efforts are motivated by religious doctrine or just simple human caring.

John S. Compere, Ph.D., is a retired clinical psychologist and professional speaker, who was an ordained Baptist minister until age 32. He is a new Foundation member from Oregon.

Freedom From Religion Foundation