Churches feed from fed trough
The federal grant program for "faith-based" social services could be questioned as defying the long-standing principle of separation of church and state. From the viewpoint of potential grant recipients, the program could also be questioned becau...
The federal grant program for "faith-based" social services could be questioned as defying the long-standing principle of separation of church and state. From the viewpoint of potential grant recipients, the program could also be questioned because of the administrative weaknesses of small organizations involved in spending federal money.
Even though burdened by these questions, religious organizations are enthusiastic about the idea of getting their hands on federal money for programs they can design and control. Religious groups have always been permitted to provide tax-funded social services through separate nonprofit entities but the new faith-based program permits churches themselves to operate social service programs without establishing separate entities.
With the availability of cheap federal money, interest in providing social services has blossomed throughout Christendom - even in churches that once spurned the "social gospel" as a worldly detraction from the evangelistic mission of the church. Supporters of the grant program argue that church organizations can deliver the services more effectively than conventional government agencies.
The argument is true in certain programs, especially addiction recovery. A good example is the Christ-centered Teen Challenge program that originated on a shoestring in Williston and then moved to Mandan for a larger facility. It has a recovery record of more than 80 percent.
The evangelical churches that have sponsored appearances of Teen Challenge have been enthusiastic, not only about the recovery record but the focus on Christian faith. There is no doubt that many of the religious organizations seeking faith-based grants hope that their programs will give them the opportunity to promote their choice of faith.
That raises a question more important than separation of church and state and administrative ability. It is a question of moral integrity. If a religious organization believes that it has a responsibility to provide a program with federal money, then it ought to believe that such a responsibility exists without federal money. However, many of the new faith-based programs would not see the light of day if it were not for federal money.
This fascination with federal money for religious programs can be explained in part by the failure of churches to deal with Christian stewardship in the richest nation on earth. A study of Christian giving by John and Sylvia Ronsvalle indicated that the richer we became over the past 40 years, the less we gave in proportion to our incomes.
In 1968, mainline denominational members gave 3.3 percent, evangelicals gave 6.15 percent. In 2001, the mainline denominations were at 3.17 and evangelicals slipped to 4.27. In 2002, the Barna Christian survey group found that only 6 percent of "born-again" adults tithed - a 50 percent decline from 2000 when 12 percent did.
In "The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience," Ronald Sider claims that if American Christians tithed, they would have another $143 billion to empower the poor and spread the gospel. Citing United Nations studies, Sider reports that an additional $80 billion a year would provide health care and education for all of the poor on earth. "American Christians would have the private dollars to foot this entire bill and still have $60-$70 billion or more to do evangelism around the world," he asserts.
In a nation where more than 60 percent of the people claim that religion is very important in their lives, faith hasn't moved from the pew to the pocketbook. Taking federal money for faith-based programs looks like a copout for churches that are unwilling to put up their own money to do what they should be doing anyway.
Omdahl is former N.D. lieutenant governor and retired University of North Dakota political science teacher.