Faith-based initiatives, reconsidered

When President Obama encourages Americans to get involved in
community service and take some action to make a difference, I think of
how closely that message reflects the Catholic social teaching of
subsidiarity. I wonder if he does…

Acton has a good commentary on where faith-based initiatives may go under this administration, and
whether new restrictions will threaten the work that has proved more
successful than most any government program.

The potential fly in the ointment has been that
religious entities (primarily Christian ones) conduct a large portion
of the charitable activity in the United States. On the straight logic
of decentralization and effectiveness, that should make little
difference. But matters of church and state are flashpoints in the
culture wars. Secularists worry that government funding will encourage
the growth and persistence of religious institutions they wish would
hurry up and fade away.

The key problem with the Obama administration’s intent to secularize
the operation of religious charities is that there is no work from
these charities without employees who share the spiritual and temporal
mission. Neither will time-tested methods, which count on spiritual
exhortation and reformation, be able to deliver their goods. The entire
reason groups like Prison Fellowship can be more effective in
preventing recidivism by offenders is that they address the spiritual
person rather than the merely material person.

Government ought not change the rules now to interfere with how
these successful organizations and ministries deliver care and services
to the needy at the community level.

Should the new Justice Department crack down on
spiritual affinity and spiritual content, though, the scale of the
benefit that can be achieved will be substantially reduced. The
question is whether a particular view of church-state interaction
should prevent the expansion of programs that may be more successful in
helping Americans than their secular and/or governmental counterparts.

Part of the problem stems from the way we use the word “secular.” To
us, “secular” means “without God” or “without reference to religion.”
The word secular has taken on that meaning the same way liberalism has
become synonymous with left-wing collectivism instead of carrying the
word’s more classical association with freedom. The solution to the
problem may be to reinvent secularism, or at least to rediscover
another meaning for it.

If we look to earlier historical usage, then we discover a more
helpful definition of the secular. Secular once meant “in the world.”
Using this definition, we could then ask whether the work of a
religious charity results in any good “in the world.” Thus, if a
ministry like Prison Fellowship can demonstrate effectiveness in its
purely voluntary program for prisoners at a state penitentiary, then it
should qualify for government funding. Why should Prison Fellowship or
another worthy ministry qualify for “secular” funding? Because these
have proven they produce “secular” goods like reduced recidivism.

Deciding what is secular and what is not — using the above framework
— should make the decision to fund faith-based charities easier for
policymakers concerned with religio-political implications. They need
not destroy the spiritual distinctiveness of religious institutions in
order to sustain charitable operations and reap a public benefit.

From the days of the Obama transition to power, his team has talked
about how best to serve the common good. This is one clear answer.


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