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Tony Campolo

Tony Campolo

Posted: March 9, 2009 05:01 PM

From the beginning, there have been some religious leaders who greeted the funding of faith-based social services by government with ambivalence. On the one hand, they believed that these religiously grounded programs needed extra funding and were pleased that the White House wanted to help. On the other hand, they had deep concerns about how government dollars would change the character of those faith-based ministries receiving this aid.

Some actually feared this federal funding because they believed it would lead to an inevitable secularization of faith-based social programs. As one such leader said, "Getting the government involved in the work of the Church is like mixing ice cream with horse manure. It won't hurt the manure, but it sure will mess up the ice cream!" (Just for the record, he thought that the work of the Church was the ice cream.)

The basic idea behind the White House program for faith-based social programs was that religious organizations sponsor a variety of social services that would otherwise have to be provided by government spending, and that faith-based programs are able to render these social services less expensively and more efficiently than government agencies could. Given this kind of thinking, it seemed to make sense for the government to fund faith-based programs, enabling them to expand their social ministries and do their good for even greater numbers of needy persons. After-school tutoring programs, care for the elderly, shelters for the homeless, disaster relief work, and a variety of other services would all benefit from government funding. The only requisite would be a strict division between such social programs and anything that had to do with proselytizing or evangelizing. That's where the rub came in!

Many religious critics believed that such a neat separation would be impossible. If the programs were carried out under the auspices of a religious group, and the persons serving are known to be serving in the name of that group's religion, then the work would be, in and of itself, a testimony of faith with evangelizing implications. This, for many of the strong advocates of the separation of church and state, seems to be a clear case of the government financing religion. As one church leader stated clearly, "All we do in the name of Jesus is aimed at conveying His love for those we serve. We preach the Gospel in all that we do, even when we don't use words." One African-American minister told me that those who served would bring Jesus into all they did, and he was pretty sure that "those folks in Washington wouldn't do anything to stop them."

Getting the government to put money into social programs run by religious institutions is a practice that started during the Clinton years, when Bill Clinton advocated the AmeriCorps program. He designed the AmeriCorps program in order to get a quarter of a million young people into community service by offering them room, board, monthly stipends, and generous offerings for college tuition. As part of this program, he established 50,000 slots for young people to serve in faith-based organizations. Religious organizations ranging from the Salvation Army and the Lutheran Youth Corps to drug rehab programs such as Teen Challenge benefited greatly from this arrangement.

Clinton's successor in the White House, George W. Bush, was committed to expanding government spending for faith-based initiatives. Shortly after taking office he declared that faith-based programs would receive increased federal funding and, to the delight of his Evangelical friends, he established the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives (now called the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships).

But as the Bush years wore on, disillusionment set in. It wasn't long before there was talk about how this office was being subverted by the likes of Karl Rove to serve political purposes. Certain leaders of African-American denominations complained that government dollars for faith-based ministries were being used to lure pastors from black churches into loyalty to the Republican Party. The resignation of John DiJulio as the Director of the White House office lent substance to the rumor that faith-based programs were being politicized. Then J. David Kuo, the deputy director of the President's program, not only resigned, but wrote an exposé of how the faith-based programs supported by the White House were underfunded and were more propaganda than substance. Yet religionists, and especially Evangelicals, failed to raise a ruckus over what was happening, probably because they still were hoping that crumbs, in the way of grants, might fall their way from the White House table.

Then came the plans for faith-based initiatives from Barack Obama during his campaign for the presidency. Obama promised that in his administration there would be even more dollars for faith-based social programs than were promised by President Bush. But (and there is a big "but" here) it was declared that any government funding would be available only to those programs that did not discriminate on the basis of race, gender, sexual orientation, and religion.

Evangelical groups immediately saw the fly in the ointment. Religious organizations would have to be open to hiring persons who were not necessarily in accord with their beliefs and sexual behavioral expectations. They decried the requisite that they would have to provide equal opportunities for the employment of gays and lesbians if they were to receive federal grants. Also, faith-based programs such as World Vision (the largest religious relief organization in the world) and Catholic Charities recognized that they would no longer be able to limit their hiring to co-religionists, even for their top administrative positions.

These concerns were properly noted by Rick Warren, the pastor of the famous Saddleback Church in Orange County, California. Rev. Warren brought them to the attention of Barack Obama, and to millions of Americans watching on television, when he interviewed Barack Obama and John McCain during a religious values forum held at his church during the campaign. Rev. Warren correctly pointed out that the Civil Rights legislation of 1972 specifically exempted religious organizations from expectations to be non-discriminatory if faced with the prospect of being asked to hire persons whose convictions and lifestyles were contrary to those organizations' beliefs and moral codes.

During the days leading up to the November election, there were numerous telephone conversations between Obama's political strategists and the leaders of some of the largest faith-based organizations in the country. To still the anxieties of these leaders, word was sent down on the eve of the election giving assurances that if no fuss was made by drawing attention to these problems, the policies that were in place on these matters during the Bush Administration would be continued. The message, according to one Christian leader, was that Obama himself had communicated this to him.

Now, weeks after the election, there comes, loud and clear, from a counselor to the President, that such assurances were not for real, and that the promised money will not be given for social programs to religious organizations that discriminate against gays or those who are not in harmony with their religious beliefs. This appears to be a betrayal of what was heard prior to Election Day.

There is some justification for Obama's new policy. After all, if all law-abiding citizens have some of their tax dollars being given to these faith-based organizations, shouldn't all these tax payers have access to the employment opportunities these organizations provide? Granted that this might lead to the secularization of these organizations, but then there were many of us who saw that possibility from the very beginning.

At the same time we should recognize that the non-discriminatory policy of the Obama administration could seriously diminish the distinctive religious character of faith-based ministries. Also, it could pose problems with their constituents who fiscally support these programs because of their religious commitments.

Over the past decade many faith based programs, with encouragement from the White House, have expanded their ministries and programs and are now dependent on government dollars if they are to be sustained.

Are these faith-based programs being forced to decide between sacrificing their religious distinctiveness on the one hand, and on the other hand, losing the funding that they have been lured into desperately needing?

It may be that many leaders of faith-based social programs have sold their birthright for a bowl of pottage called federal dollars.

Tony Campolo is author of Red Letter Christians, and served on the 2008 Platform Committee for the Democratic National Convention.