Pop goes the weasel

By the

February 8, 2001

Bush’s transformation of his faith-based social service initiative from campaign promise to reality is far from a political jack-in-the-box. It is not surprising that the man who nominated John Ashcroft?who engendered charitable choice with the 1996 Welfare Reform Act?would maintain his commitment to funneling federal dollars to religious organizations. Simply because Bush’s plan should not shock Americans does not mean, however, that it should not frighten them.
On a superficial level, issuing polemics on religious groups’ soup kitchens appears counterintuitive. Admittedly, these institutions have the capacity to provide valuable services to the community. The problem emerges when this issue is evaluated by placing these benefits on one side of the balance without also weighing the less tangible implications.
The common argument?that there’s nothing wrong with the federal funding of religious institutions, because the majority of Americans consider themselves religiously-affiliated?would be adequate in a populist state. In our democratic one, however, there are intrinsic social values that Bush’s plan violates. Faith-based initiatives leave no room for minority dissent. It is unlikely that someone in need of food or shelter will be able to act as an active consumer when seeking assistance. No one will be presenting those in need with a long list of available services from which that person can select his or her preferred religious or secular organization.
Proponents of charitable choice acknowledge that some people may be forced to patronize an institution championing a faith different than their own, but that this is permissible because only the social service is being funded?not the religion. The failure of this argument is that the birth of charitable choice in the aforementioned Welfare Reform Act obliterated the barrier between a religious institution’s social services and its faith-based functions. In the past, if the government contracted a religious institution to provide a community service, that group was obligated to set up a separate secular body to allocate the received funds. Charitable choice, on the other hand, allows religious groups to proselytize while performing community services.
Numerous other problems exist within Bush’s plan: His faith-based initiative allows for religious-based hiring discrimination. His plan will also infringe on the freedom of the very religious institutions he aims to support as the government enacts new regulations to control distributed finances.
One further argument for Bush’s plan is that the current system actually discriminates against religious institutions. Why force religious groups to operate on voluntary funds while secular groups receive hand-outs from the federal government? This is the crux of the argument propounded by those who disagree with the place that the first amendment deems religion to have in society. Our government does not favor secular institutions at the expense of religious ones; the two are not operating in the same sphere of existence, thanks to the constitutional wall of separation erected between church and state. Bush aims to bulldoze this wall with his faith-based initiative. Bush has written that “government can do certain things very well, but it cannot put hope in our hearts or a sense of purpose in our lives. That requires churches and synagogues and mosques and charities.”
Is it surprising that a man who sees government’s failure to bring a warm, fuzzy feeling to citizens’ lives as a problem that needs to be remedied with religion is also determined to de-secularize social services? No, it is not surprising; but it is frightening.

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