The incoming Bush administration wants to award some government services to "faith-based" organizations. The idea is loaded with problems.
First, no matter how charitably inclined religious groups may appear to be, no matter how sincere their zeal to serve, they ultimately exist to promote themselves. The temptation to withhold or subvert services on the basis of religious belief or affiliation is a likely by-product of the government plan. Some kind of religious pressure--real or perceived--is a near certainty. Adherents make no secret of the fact they think religious faith is the answer to most human suffering. That is why they want to establish faith-based human-services programs.
The most obvious example of faith-based service in America today is religion-sponsored homeless shelters. Men and women wait outside shelter doors until they are allowed in for the next meal (daytime admission policies vary from state to state and shelter to shelter).
Often, shelter residents are mentally ill, wearing socks for shoes or shoes without socks, their teeth rotting in their mouths. Their unlovely appearance makes it likely that many of them will wander from shelter to shelter indefinitely, never finding work, never having a home of their own, stumbling along until they die.
They are captive to the will of the ministering organizations. In return for a meal and a bed, they attend religious services.
Another example of faith-based human services is that of Catholic nuns who sometimes work for non-profit organizations, like battered women"s shelters. The nuns earn exactly the same wages as their secular counterparts but agency bookkeepers make their checks payable to the religious order--a tax exempt organization.
Hospitals and schools offer still more examples of religious power wielding, and that in America"s most critical institutions.
Hospital after hospital in the U.S. has been taken over by religious organizations that impose their particular moral constraints on their patients. Women are being denied the lawful right of abortion and deprived of contraceptive services. And religious boards of directors, inspired by an unforgiving idea of the sanctity of life, decide who may die and when. And if they insist on artificial means to keep people alive long past the point of no return, then they also are deciding how that person may die.
Religion-run schools are more forthcoming about their purpose. They exist to promote a set of beliefs. But public schools are no more safe from the machinations of religious people than are the schools that religious groups own.
Public school after school has suffered under the control of morality crusaders and elected officials (typical of the right"s "stealth" corps) who want to decide what children may learn. They seem to fear children"s being exposed to other than their particular brand of religious truth, as the flammable struggle over whether creation or evolution will be taught as science (fact) attests.
Sex, of course, has been a bone of religious contention since the demise of the Mother Goddess. Efforts to ban one or other book are a constant thorn in the side of educators, less rigidly moralistic school-board members, and public librarians.
School vouchers are another religious effort to indoctrinate children at taxpayer expense. Disguised--exactly like the faith-based services proposal--as a practical choice, vouchers may chase even more students into private schools, risking even deeper funding cuts for public education. Small country schools and already crumbling inner-city schools, already starved for funds, may be lost. More parents will be forced to "choose" private schools under the auspices of the vouchers program.
And taxpayers will bear the financial burden for all of it. First will be expanded tax exemptions for religious groups who participate in the new programs.
Religious tax-exemptions already account for an enormous portion of America"s economy, with working people (including religious people who are members of the tax-exempt organizations) bearing most of the load.
But most religious organizations are not charities. The money congregants give to their religious organizations provides for the needs and desires of their leaders, builds meeting houses and furnishes and regularly refurbishes them, and enhances them with stained glass windows and well-equipped kitchens. A portion of the group"s income is used to send missionaries to foreign lands--to enlarge the faith group--and to support them there.
Again, faithful people give to promote, enhance and enlarge their own organization.
They see their tithes and offerings as God"s money. Some would say that to withhold it would be to "steal from God." Yet the organizations they support receive exactly the same tax exemption as legitimate charities, no matter how wealthy, no matter the size or luxuriousness of their buildings, no matter the number of their acres of land.
When religious congregants give to alleviate needs outside the organization, it is almost always in the form of "special offerings," over and above regular tithing and giving. But that too is an investment in the organization.
Outreach efforts always, in some way, promote the group. Every success is a prospective new convert who will support the congregation and help it to grow. As the congregation grows, it eventually will need a larger building, want to hire a youth pastor to minister to its young adults, purchase educational materials for children and robes and expensive cantata books for its choir. It will send out more workers and, perhaps, launch a fleet of busses to ensure that old and young, rich and poor, the eager and the uncertain make it to services--regularly.
Religious groups that are selected to participate in the new effort will demand start-up money and ongoing gifts and grants to operate their programs. And the government will have to establish oversight committees to prevent religious abuses. They will tax us accordingly. But they will not adequately fund the oversight programs any more than they adequately fund the programs our laws already require, like environmental protections.
No one has yet said exactly which government services are being considered for administration by faith-based groups. Probably they will include daycare for children of low-income working mothers, perhaps some pre-school or Head Start-type programs for children, and possibly expanded shelter and feeding programs for homeless families and indigent adults.
We will pay all of the costs. And we will have excused the government from its responsibility to the people, even while our taxes--despite promised tax cuts--will reflect the costs of administering the programs. Those who are not inclined to accept religious pressure may do without services, exactly as some homeless people today forgo the comfort of a dry bed, even in winter, rather than suffer through religious-conversion efforts at the shelters.
The government"s siphoning off its obligation to Americans in order to appease religious groups is a bad idea. America would be far better served if we stopped supporting religion and began to adequately fund our schools, environmental protection programs, and health-care obligations.