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Jewish World Review Feb. 5, 2001 / 12 Shevat, 5761

Cal Thomas

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Will shekels mean shackles for faith-based programs? --
I CONFESS to being double-minded when it comes to President Bush's plan to offer government funds to religious charities that provide social services.

On the one hand, I agree with Americans United for the Separation of Church and State that religion doesn't need government to advance its primary calling. On the other hand, I agree with Bush adviser, Professor Marvin Olasky, who says, "I don't think the Founders anticipated a time when secularism or atheism was to be given preference.'' Still, Olasky worries that letting government in the church door can be "dangerous stuff.''

President Bush is also right when he says, "Government will never fund religion, but government should not fear funding programs that can change people's lives.''

What concerns me is that religious organizations might be tempted, or forced, to dilute their life-transforming message in order to get government subsidies, thus negating the primary reason for their success. They also risk becoming an appendage of the party in power that financially smiles upon them.

Suppose a new administration of a different party frowns upon a particular charity's close association with the previous administration and allegiance to his party. Charities might be transformed into a lobbying group to be pacified with money in exchange for votes. Many liberal religious groups are mostly aligned with the Democratic Party. Do conservative charities want to follow their example and experience and become subsidiaries of the Republican Party?

When the Founders wrote the First Amendment, they largely sought to protect the church from government intrusion, not the reverse. But the church and other religious bodies should not necessarily take that as an invitation to raid the treasury. The Clinton Administration gave volunteerism a bad name when it established "AmeriCorps'' and paid the "volunteers.'' If people who claim to serve a higher King and a different kingdom fail to obey G-d's commands and serve Him by serving others, how can government intervention create more compassionate hearts? Won't the temptation be to ignore charitable acts, believing that government has picked up a great share of the load?

It is beyond debate that programs with a life-changing spiritual element produce the results government seeks but has yet to find, in "secular'' programs. Organizations like Prison Fellowship, where the recidivism rate is in single digits, and Teen Challenge, a drug rehabilitation program President Bush praised when he was governor of Texas, change lives and substantially reduce the likelihood of repeat offenses. This is a worthy objective and one government can support, so long as no one is coerced into entering such programs. Why should government or anyone else care what method is used so long as it produces results that promote the individual's and the general welfare? Why discriminate against religion, when secularism has failed so miserably?

President Bush seems to have considered at least some of the potential hazards of funding faith-based charity work. He first would ease regulations that have made it difficult for these charities to work with government agencies. He also would offer a $500-per-person tax credit for charitable donations for the 70 percent of Americans who don't itemize on their tax returns. I like that part because it puts the choice of the charity in the hands of the donor. Finally, and most controversially, Bush would allow religious charities to compete for government grants on an equal footing with secular organizations.

On this last point, the money should go to those institutions -- of whatever religion or no religion -- that produce the results government and the public say they want. That is the best way to avoid church-state entanglements and insure that no one religion would be preferred over another.

My main concern is that many churches and charities might see government involvement as a good excuse for individuals to abdicate a personal calling to "feed the hungry, clothe the naked and visit those in prison,'' as well as caring for widows and orphans. Charity is a two-way street. It helps the receiver but it's also supposed to transform the giver. That is what is meant by "it is more blessed to give than to receive.''

Government help to faith-based charities is worth a try but let's keep a sharp eye on it.

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