Predictable misplaced fury over faith-based initiative

(Note: The following was printed in the editorial section of the Seattle Times)

Divisional Commander, Northwest

President Bush’s recent announcement of his intention to form a White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives was predictably and understandably met with a rash of public skepticism. Insinuations that the line between church and state will forever be blurred arose from ardent civil libertarians. Likewise, religious organizations not wanting anything to do with Uncle Sam voiced suspicions that the federal government was somehow plotting to play an overly intrusive role into how they provide services.

Our own Seattle Times served as a canvas for this debate Jan. 31. In side-by-side, pro-con guest commentaries on the op-ed page, the Reverends Louis Sheldon and Barry Lynn squared off on the issue, utilizing vitriolic language claiming that the president’s initiative would direct taxpayer funds to “racist, anti-Semitic” groups and accusing “liberals” of wanting to sabotage religion wholesale.

But while we respect the passion of such opinions, we are at a point now where such hyperbolic flag-waving must be tempered by fact-based analysis intended to help Americans assume a rational perch from which to view the implementation of the president’s initiative.

The fact is, certain faith-based organizations have long contracted with the federal government to provide vital social services to those in need. In The Salvation Army’s Northwest Division – which encompasses Washington, Idaho and Western Montana – we annually receive government dollars to provide needy folks with food, shelter, job training, rent assistance, domestic violence counseling, legal advocacy and hygiene services.

As an arm of the Christian church, while we are always heartened by men and women who, by their own free will, ask the Army to help them establish a relationship with Christ–religious beliefs are never, ever forced upon those we serve.

In one of our programs, the Adult Recovery Center, we feel we must let recovering drug and alcohol addicts know that they are loved by a higher power. Because the spiritual component is considered to be an absolutely essential part of this particular program, no government funds are accepted for this program, thus openly and proactively acknowledging that we will not utilize taxpayer dollars for services that contain a mandatory component of faith.

On the other side of the spectrum, faith-based groups that are wary of partnering with the government for fear that it will diminish the weight of their spiritual message simply need not apply. Chances are, such groups have not contracted with the government before, and will not be forced to do so as a result of the president’s initiative. In reality, they will simply continue to go about their business however they please without the benefit of government funding. No harm done.

One theory advanced by both sides of the political spectrum is that the president’s initiative will instantly funnel money to extremist groups who actively and proudly engage in discriminatory practices. In order to buy into this notion, you would have to first believe that every constitutional check-and-balance put in place from our forefathers on down would instantly evaporate. There is no evidence to support such a foolhardy premise, and the American people are too smart to be sucked into this irrational vacuum of misguided opinion.

Similarly, what few detractors are willing to point out is that the idea to enhance the partnership between government and faith-based social service organizations is truly a bipartisan issue, as a Seattle Times’ staff editorial on the topic (“Intriguing, yet undefined faith-based White House,” Feb. 6) pointed out by referencing Democratic presidential nominee Al Gore’s words on the campaign trail in 1999:

“If you elect me president,” said Gore, “the voices of faith-based organizations will be integral to the policies set forth in my administration.”

Furthermore, as the president pointed out in his discussion of the topic before Congress, big-city Democratic mayors like Philadelphia’s Jim Street have already set their own local versions of the faith-based initiative in motion. Again, nobody’s reinventing any wheels here – just shining the spokes.

It is in this light that we view the president’s faith-based initiative not as a constitutional panacea, but rather as a well-intended, apolitical mechanism to acknowledge existing partnerships and open new doors for groups like the Army to better meet the needs of the nation’s less fortunate.

We in The Salvation Army’s Northwest Division are certainly up to President Bush’s challenge, and thank him for his vigorous attention to the work we do. After all, the call to service knows no boundaries.

Maj. Ron Strickland is divisional commander of The Salvation Army’s Northwest Division, which serves Washington, Idaho and Western Montana.

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