Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

Faith-based organizations and Katrina relief

It turns out that the real cause of the government’s alleged or possible shortcomings in hurricane and flood relief (about which more here and here, the latter containing the whole of the President’s carefully worded statement) is the faith-based initiative. Say what?

In a meandering and insidious column, Boston Globe columnist James Carroll can’t actually offer evidence or even much or an argument, just a few factoids and insinuations. To wit:

The church-state divide, undercutting norms of supervision and accountability, means religious groups, even while entrusted with public functions, can embody antipublic values. To take last week’s most glaring example, Operation Blessing, one of the FEMA-recommended relief agencies, is affiliated with Pat Robertson, an advocate of assassination as a tool of foreign policy. Why were American citizens being encouraged by the United States government to support Pat Robertson’s enterprise?

I defy you to find the "antipublic values" on
Operation Blessing’s website. Here’s Charity Navigator’s evaluation of Operation Blessing: it receives the highest marks for organizational efficiency and capacity, with 99.4% of its expenses being devoted to its programs. Of course, guilt by association is enough for The Nation and Americans United, whose talking points Carroll repeats. Don’t get me wrong: I hold no brief for Pat Robertson politically or theologically. His statements about Hugo Chavez were far beyond the pale. But there’s no evidence that money that goes to Operation Blessing for Katrina relief does anything other than help the victims.

Of course, Carroll doesn’t stop there. Apparently, it’s impossible for those who are moved by religion to help their neighbors in need not to impose on them:

The missionary impulse is implicit in the good works of religion. Mother Teresa required nothing of those she helped, but she still hoped that the compassionate face of Christ shined through her eyes. To some of us, it surely did -- but that hope itself can become an imposition on those who are in need.

If I love my neighbor as myself because he or she is created in God’s image, my action--the work, without which faith is dead, as John Kerry regularly insisted on the stump--is suspect. Carroll would seem to require that I launder my compassion through a secular agency. After all, secular compassion, however patronizing, is apparently not an imposition.

In the final analysis, all we have is the stock criticism of the faith-based initiative--that it’s simply an excuse the dismantle the social safety net, which having been dismantled, failed in hurricane relief. There is of course not a shred of evidence that FEMA’s failings, such as they are, had anything to do with vouchers going to faith-based alcohol and drug rehab programs, or to welfare-to-work programs sponsored by churches or FBOs, to take a couple of prominent faith-based initiative programs.

And yes, the poor people of New Orleans, many of them mired in a culture of dependency, were not well-served, to say the least, by any level of government, certainly not before or during the crisis. But the levees didn’t fail because the government had subcontracted with FBOs to shore them up. And the buses weren’t submerged because the government had hired pastors to drive them. And the poor people in New Orleans were in rough shape long before George Bush came into office, through many Democratic administrations in Washington, D.C. and Baton Rouge, after decades of Democratic dominance on Capitol Hill. I’m far from arguing that a welfare-to-work program run by an FBO is necessarily better for everyone than a government, secular, or for-profit program. But the state of the argument and evidence regarding the faith-based initiative has nothing to do with the quality of federal, state, and local disaster response.

In the end, Carroll’s poor substitute for an argument is just another example of someone attempting to hitch his wagon to the rising star of Katrina-inspired Bush-bashing. I guess I don’t blame him too much. Everyone else is doing it. Which of course tells me more about the quality of their arguments than it does about anything else.

Discussions - 5 Comments

Put another way, this view holds that a voluntary redistributive act which reminds the person in need of their dependence on God is an offensive imposition, but that an involuntary redistributive act which reinforces the person in need’s dependence on government in either the short or long term is a moral and social good. Despite what People for the American Way claim, this is not really a "neutral" stance between church and state at all, is it?

"Everyone else is doing it. Which of course tells me more about the quality of their arguments than it does about anything else."

Joseph: I don’t necessarily disagree with you about the Carroll article - I think that Pat Robertson is a charlatan, and I’m not happy to have the government funnelling money to him, and this might vindicate an Emerson-esque concern about the divisiveness of tax moneys going to religious groups, but that’s another matter.

But your closing statement troubles me. Yes, there might be some piling on. But there could also be an avalanche of criticism precisely because the feds really blew it here. It seems odd to imply that because a criticism is widespread, it must be suspicious (or, worse, that the motives of the critics are suspicious and therefore the argument is unsound). The CRS report on Blanco’s response leaked yesterday, and the Knight-Ridder docs on Chertoff’s dalliance, not to mention Bush’s clear if half-hearted acceptance of "responsibility" yesterday, show that there is a lot more here than something like MSM-inspired Bush-bashing.


I meant only to argue that everyone is using the Katrina disaster to justify his or her favorite policy position. I never said, nor do I believe, that all criticism of the feds in this case is misplaced, though I have said, and I do believe, that a goodly share of the culpability rests with state and local authorities.

We indeed have to learn from this how to improve disaster response and preparedness at all levels of government. But first, of course, we have to help those in need.

All I know is that I NEVER saw nor heard mention of "Operation Blessing" during MY family’s ordeal. If Pat Robertson’s people were out there feeding and clothing people anywhere CLOSE to the level that the Red Cross, or the Salvation Army were, niether I nor anyone I know saw it.

I also question the logic of putting a charitable institution that has vast CONSERVATIVE POLITICAL influence as the second charity on the list of a GOVERNMENT list when other charities (who don’t happen to have a former conservative presidential candidate as their leader) are better equiped to handle immediately needed tasks and are already well established in the region like Catholic Charities or the Salvation Army.

Yes, DJ, I have been to New Orleans, but I’ve never lived there, nor have I ever claimed to. I’ve also never posted under the name "Steve." It’s cute that you consider "exposing" people at NLT your little duty, but it’s REALLY getting old, especially since you obviously have no idea what you’re talking about.

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