January 29, 2001
The Complications of Charitable Choice
-- Martin E. Marty
This is the third time *Sightings* has gazed at "charitable choice"and "faith-based" ventures. Not necessarily the most urgent topic,it nevertheless can be revealing since people in both parties are on bothsides. Some find pro and con arguments in their own minds and outlooks.
To some the term "faith-based" seems deceptive. What are the choices? "Spirituality-based?" Hardly: spirituality, "me-centered,"does not form associations to attract human-service volunteers. "Religion-based?" This might pick up enemies in a time when the spirituality people are teachingus to mistrust "religion." "Church-based," as in "church and state?" More than "church" is involved.
"Faith" can mean "personal faith," or "faith in...," or "faith that...." It may mean communities of the faithful. We speak of "American faiths,"meaning faith groups. The ambiguities are appropriate. (I helpedfound and name the Park Ridge Center for Health, Faith, and Ethics, soI'll sit on the sidelines of this debate about terms.)
So, to the issues, where the pro side is clear. For decades Catholicand Lutheran and Salvation Army and most other religious-institution-relatedhumanitarian agencies have dispersed funds gathered through tax revenues. They have done so virtually without controversy, by having set up legallystringent measures to keep the "faith" out of range to recipients. Tax funds are not used for evangelizing, proselytizing, religious education,or worship. The record in that respect is good.
Also, on the pro side, much of the public likes faith-based venturesbecause they tend to be economical, efficient, and enlarged since theyput lay and volunteer talent to work, allowing these organizations to servemore people. And, importantly, "faith-based" does not have to bedesigned to serve only the religious right, as some fear. Catholics,mainline Protestants, and African-American churches are more at home withthis concept than many evangelicals.
On the con side of this debate are some cautions. One of the biggestfears -- watch the debates -- is that some will use faith-based, partlyvolunteer initiatives as an excuse not to address pressing issues of socialwelfare, which necessarily depend upon government expenditures. Forthis reason, some judge faith-based initiatives as too inadequate and smallto deal with large social issues.
Another caution is that some newcomers on the scene will undoubtedlycombine evangelizing with humanitarian service. This can be innocent,as when a black pastor argues that only the born-again will have a strongenough weapon to fight off drug addiction. But innocent or not, suchsituations make more than a few people uneasy.
Many religious groups have their own worries. Many Southern Baptistsand evangelicals are not the only religious people cautious about dependencyon government, the potential sapping of lay initiative, the loss true volunteerand faith-based efforts. We hear from those suspicious of government: "Whoever takes the king's shekels gets the king's shackles."
The new president has ensured that this complicated debate will continuein coming months. Stay tuned.