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Our alliances with government

AN OPINION

BY COLONEL PHIL NEEDHAM – 

President Bush’s decision to open an office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives to form a closer working alliance between government and faith-based organizations has caused quite a stir–on all sides of the political spectrum.

THE DANGERS

On the liberal side generally, there is a concern that the cozy relationship will lead inevitably to undue religious influence on a government which, in American political philosophy, is specifically designed to be religion-neutral. There is very good reason for this insistence on religion-neutral government. In a significant way, this country is the invention of people of faith who were denied full religious rights in their previous homelands. They had immigrated from countries with governments fully aligned with an established state church which denied freedom of practice to churches with alternative worship, polity, and theology. Many of the American colonists came here to escape such religious oppression, and while some of them initially set up their own theocracies, as the colonies increasingly became pluralities of denominations, governments evolved toward disestablishment of any one denomination.

This process culminated in the First Amendment to the Constitution. The liberal distrust of any alliance between government and faith-based organizations has its roots in this evolution from the undue and unfair influence of established religion on civil laws to religion-neutral government.

ALLIANCES

There are quite a few conservatives who also share this concern over alliances between government and religion–only the issue for them is not so much how religion (or a denomination) might control government as it is how government might corrupt religion. They want government to stay out of anything religious, and they believe that alliances inevitably divert faith-based organizations from their mission. Denominations and para-churches who hold this view refuse to access available government funds to support the community services they may provide.

Then there are the moderates– and some conservatives–who believe that alliances between government and faith-based organizations are possible without destroying the integrity and mission of either. They admit that the preservation of mutual integrity is often challenging, given the difficulty sometimes of resolving the right of any faith-based organization to practice its faith unhindered with the mandate of government not to promote or advance any particular religious group over another.

But they feel that in many cases, a contract agreement can be reached without compromising either party. (If such an agreement cannot be reached, they would say the deal should be called off.) Those who hold this view believe that there should be nothing keeping a faith-based organization from receiving government funding so long as there is no serious compromise on either side.

INSTITUTIONAL BENEFIT

There is one more view on the matter. It is the view often held by those who place institutional advancement over adherence to religious principles and spiritual mission. Obtaining government funding for the organization, and thereby presumably strengthening the position and influence of the organization (and its leaders), supersedes adherence to its more strictly defined mission.

In some cases, deviance from the specific mission of the organization may be engaged for a nobler reason–to be able to serve people in need whom the organization may have the capacity to help but not the financial resources. In these instances, a faith-based organization may spin off another corporation without a faith-specific mission in order more easily to qualify for government contracts.

THREE PRINCIPLES

Where do we Salvationists stand on this issue? How far should The Salvation Army go in cooperative ventures and contract agreements with government entities? I would like to suggest some ways to help us resolve this issue. (Note: I have specifically in mind here primarily alliances where government provides funding for Salvation Army services designed to accomplish the purpose for which the funding was legislated.) I propose the disciplined application of three principles.

SEPARATING CHURCH/STATE

The first is the principle of the separation of church and state. The application of this principle means that government funds are not to be used to support the cause of a particular religion or denomination, but they can be used to provide resources for a community service which the government is mandated to implement, even if that community service is provided by a faith-based organization.

I contend that while government should not support, or give special privileges to a particular religion or denomination, supporting the community service of a faith-based organization which is best qualified to provide the service, even if that organization will provide spiritual counsel where requested, is not a violation of the separation of church and state as conceived by the Constitution.

This is not the establishment of a particular religion, it is the support of a particular community service which draws from a number of resources, including the spiritual, in delivering service and adding value.

Let’s get real: everyone has a religion, a worldview, and anyone who thinks that a helper/counselor/social worker can somehow neutralize or hide that worldview in the helping process is fantasizing.

I remember being part of a meeting of United Way executives early in my officership. The purpose of the meeting was to come up with some guidelines for acceptance of additional agencies into the United Way. Someone named Fred said that one of the guidelines should be that religious groups would not normally be accepted for membership. Most nodded their heads in agreement, then were mildly embarrassed when they realized I was the head of a religious group. I said, ‘Fred, why is it okay for you to provide counsel from the perspective of your atheistic worldview but not for me to do so from my theistic worldview?’

We honor the principle of separation of church and state, but not its perversion as a denial of the needed role of faith-based organizations in community service and as a prohibition of government support of quality faith-based services, which are informed and driven by a particular worldview–as are all services.

MISSION FAITHFULNESS

The second principle is the principle of mission faithfulness. All individuals and entities involved in the community service must be confident that the mission is not being violated.

The government entity must be convinced that the funded faith-based organization is effective in accomplishing the purpose (mission) of the government funding. The faith-based organization must be convinced that the funded service contributes to, is consistent with, and does not impede its mission.

The individual delivering the service must be satisfied that the government contract requirements do not hamper her accomplishment of her own mission with the organization. For example, if government requirements do not allow the possibility of prayer with clients when requested, The Salvation Army should not enter into the contract.

MUTUAL RESPONSIBILITY

The third principle is the principle of mutual responsibility and resource sharing. The entity with the resources designated for a service purpose but not equipped to provide that service effectively and efficiently should share them with the entity best equipped to do so, so long as that agency utilizes the resources for that specific purpose and does not divert them elsewhere. Inappropriate diversion is not a temptation for faith-based organizations only. The records are replete with the scandals of government and secular organizations who used government funding outside the clearly defined intention of the assignment or contract.

CONTRACTS WITHOUT COMPROMISE

There is nothing in scripture that suggests it is wrong for a church or faith-based organization to seek and apply for government funds to support its caring ministries.

In the Old Testament theocracy, government leaders were expected to be religious leaders as well, and there were usually ample prophets around to remind them of their duties as moral examples and protectors of the most needy. Apart from what government could do on a large scale, it was the responsibility of every Jew with the means to serve those in need. As the monarchy developed, distinction between the government and religious leaders was more clearly delineated, but the political leaders were still expected to live and govern by Jewish law.

The political context of the New Testament was very different. The Roman government enforced emperor worship, but still allowed for indigenous religious practice and in Judea allowed the Jewish leaders to exercise considerable power in governing the affairs of the Jews.

It was certainly a compromising alliance on both sides, but one which provided the needed measure of stability. Those Jewish leaders who were called Sadducees were criticized by many of their fellow Jews for a too cozy alliance with the Romans. It was an alliance based primarily, it seems, on the power and privilege that accrued to the Sadducees as a result. Rome compromised itself for the purpose of achieving stability in Palestine. The Sadducees also compromised themselves for the purpose of social stability, but also self-advancement.

CHURCH IN AMERICA

The situation of the Church in America on the cusp of the 21st century is very different than that of the Israelites of the Old Testament and the Church of the New Testament. Our government is viewed as secular and outside the compelling influence of a particular religious constituency. But it is similar to Old Testament government in that it is charged with a mandate to address the needs of the marginalized and the economically disadvantaged.

Faith-based organizations are uniquely positioned and equipped to address those needs. They have track records of success. On the other hand, government agencies artificially created to carry out the mandate have often lacked effectiveness. It makes good sense for the government to entrust such services to those who can provide them with greater success.

The Salvation Army is such a group. We can take the government’s support and change people’s lives, and we ought to–so long as we are mission-driven in the process, totally up-front with the government about our spiritual motivation and methodology, and ethical in the use of the funding for the specific purpose for which it is assigned.

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