Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

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More on religious groups and government funding

The Acton Institute’s Jordan J. Ballor writes, partly in response to my TAE Online op-ed, that dependency on government funding is bad for religious groups, because it is inevitably secularizing to the extent that the groups become dependent on those funds and seek to preserve them through inevitable changes in administrations and policies. He also argues that "the premise of the Faith-Based Initiative itself is suspect, as it assumes a dichotomy between faith and works that is unnatural and poisonous to the Christian religion."

I have a few quick responses. First, it strikes me that any activity that depends upon money is potentially corrupting, whether the source is governmental or private. Any time you rely on donors or external funding, you run the risk of tailoring your programs to attract the available money, rather than looking for money that supports the program you have or wish to establish. Why governmental money is different from private in this regard isn’t clear to me. A group that is true to its mission won’t go after money that compromises it.

Second, it may be that government money can help faith-based groups grow big enough to develop the kind of record to attract private donors and to create the kind of fund-raising expertise required to sustain their missions without compromise. Perhaps they should regard public funding as seed money, not a constant source of support. One-time grants are better than contracts in this regard. And again, the integrity of the mission depends upon the self-discipline of the group in refusing to accept money that compromises their mission.

Third, a lot depends upon how we understand the First Amendment. One of the principal reasons that government money is perceived as secularizing is that supporting the religious elements of the mission is (wrongly, I would argue) understood as establishment. A proper understanding of the First Amendment (not altogether out of reach) would not require the separation of secular and religious missions in funding. That doesn’t mean that a particular administration wouldn’t attempt to impose its secular understanding through its grant-making and contracting practices, only that the First Amendment wouldn’t require it to do so. Thus, for example, the current understanding is that voucher programs don’t require that eligible organizations separate their religious and secular programs, which makes them better bets for those who worry about the secularizing effect of government money. As a practical matter, I think that this, currently, is the best way to go: vouchers don’t require a change in our Establishment Clause jurisprudence, don’t require groups to separate their religious and secular programs, and empower individuals to choose what’s best for themselves.

Update: Jordan has more here. He ultimately favors offering further incentives to private donors, omitting the governmental middle-man. Does he mean, then, that government should get out of the business of privatization, that faith-based organizations should get out of the business of contracting, and/or that a much smaller government should simply offer greater incentives for people to contribute to the charities of their choice? I think that the first and third alternatives are remote at best, and that if the second occurs in the absence of the first and the third, we leave much of the social service field to secular organizations, which I’m not sure I want to do.

Discussions - 2 Comments

Joe, thanks for the excellent conversation.

Regarding the three options you present in your update, I think that the third one (offering greater incentives for direct charitable giving) is part of a solution to minimizing the role that government plays in the direct provision of and for social services. That plays in part into the first option you state, although I would replace "privatization" with "providing social services."

If the government had far fewer expenditures on social service programs, the second option would become far less of a problem, since the funding would be of comparitively less consequence.

I think Abraham Kuyper got it right when he said, "Unless you wish to undermine the position of the laboring class and destroy its natural resilience, the material assistance of the state should be confined to an absolute minimum. The continuing welfare of people and nation, including labor, lies only in powerful individual initiative" (Abraham Kuyper, The Problem of Poverty, First Christian Social Congress in the Netherlands, 9 November 1891).

The government should be the option of last resort, rahter than first, and an option for temporary rather than permanent relief. Perhaps on this view some form of the faith-based initiative is a good way to go as a temporary and limited aid for sectors of civil society that absolutely need that level of intervention and aid.

But I don’t see the current form of the initiative itself to be self-limiting in that way. Rather, it seems to me that it is manifesting the natural tendency of all governmental bureaucracy: to grow over time and seek its own self-preservation.


You and I may be among the few who genuinely care about this, given everything else that’s going on.

I too carry a torch for smaller government, but think that the prospects for achieving it are quite remote, even more so without the faith-based initiative than with it. I think privatization (contracting out what have come to be understood as government services) is a step in the right direction, but don’t want to leave that field entirely to those who want to extend that arrangement into perpetuity, simply replacing government agencies with not-for-profit and for-profit counterparts.

Weaning people from dependency on government aid is a long-term process, which requires the engagement of faith communities. I think, in the end, that we agree more than we disagree, and that our disagreement has more to do with judgments about tactics and strategies than about first principles.

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