May 27, 1999
-- Martin E. Marty
Vice President Al Gore, campaigning--as his appearance must be described--in Atlanta Monday backed "faith-based" activities that depend in part on tax support. His choice to do so looked like "trickle-over" politics to some, since Republican majorities had favored the programs for some time and most Democrats had opposed them. Sighting him making such amove leads us to observe that it could also be "trickle-up" politics.
By that we mean that on many levels Democrats, or presumed Democrats, had favored accepting government aid for social programs that reach where no other resources, agencies, or people do. We picture most pastoral and other leadership of African American, Hispanic, and poor churches and agencies having lined up for years in support of "faith-based"--the term is relatively new--endeavors. Now some Party leadership, perhaps to be competitive and also to be realistic and practical, are turning to such cooperative endeavors.
These have been going on for years. Gore spoke at a Salvation Army gathering. Much, perhaps most, of what the Army spends in many communities comes not from generous donors or tossers of coins into red pots but from revenues. Huge denominational relief agencies and immigration services administer tax funds. A woman religious who heads eight Catholic charities in one metropolis told us that none would survive without governmental tie-ins. Tell that to most people and they do not rear up and shout "Violation of church and state" any more than they do when they think of church property being tax-exempt. They know that their best shot at saving inner cities, serving their people, and carrying on human services is through religious organizations. These depend much on voluntary help, motivated people, and stewards of dollars and humane concerns.
Of course, "faith-based" and "Charitable Choice" (to use the political term being debated today) ventures are risky. Watchers on the "wall of separation of church and state" and monitors on the line distinguishing civil authority and religious expression rightfully are alert. Mr. Gore had to take great pains to make absolutely clear that he and others who support the "faith-based" are totally against governmental support for overt religious expression: proselytizing, evangelizing, spiritually nurturing, preaching, indoctrinating, worshiping, coercing, making captive audiences of people, and the like.
Support of "faith-based," increasingly bipartisan ventures will remain risky and ambiguous. Once more, Americans will have to muddle through the muddy terrain where it is hard to build walls and draw lines if people are to be served and the church and state do not get fused. Fusion would be too high a price to pay for "faith-basing."