Beating the Bearhug:
The Hard Work Of Charitable Choice Is Just Beginning

by Marvin Olasky

Last week's cover story about the federal government's war on the Memphis Union Mission showed that a Christian poverty fighter who thinks he can easily work with Washington is like the preacher who realized he was out of ammo as a ferocious bear charged at him. The preacher prayed, "Lord, please forgive me and grant me just one wish. Please make a Christian out of that bear that's coming at me." That very instant, the bear skidded to a halt, fell to its knees, clasped its paws together, and began to pray aloud: "Dear God, bless this food I am about to receive."

While both Democrats and Republicans talk glibly about federal officials making grants to faith–based poverty–fighting groups, a voracious government is snapping at those who try to communicate their faith. So far, it seems that officials are up to their old tricks, pressuring missions to give up sharing spiritual food in order to retain the physical variety. How should the rest of us react?

First, we should emphasize what's called "subsidiarity": Always look first to families to help their own, then to churches and other community organizations. If it is necessary to turn to government, go first to city, then to county, then to state, and only then to federal offices—in each case saying not "Show me the money," but "Back to basics." For example, a group that protects teenage ex–hookers from pimps should have adequate police protection. An inner–city baseball league sponsoring a tournament for teens should have police on hand to dissuade gang violence. That's why governments have what the New Testament calls the power of the sword.

Second, since governments these days also own lots of property, they can be of enormous help by making facilities available to the people who have paid for them. A local government, instead of setting up a recreation program, should encourage volunteer groups to do the job on city–owned land. City parks should be available for vacation Bible schools. Meeting rooms in government buildings should be available to religious groups on a nondiscriminatory basis.

Third, we should remember that governments these days have not only the power of the sword but the power of big purses: Why should taxpayers send thousands of dollars to Washington for the promotion of essentially atheistic anti–poverty philosophies, while faith–based poverty–fighters are hard put to expand their work? The best way to redress that inequity is through tax credits: We could start by allowing taxpayers to send checks for $500 to the poverty–fighting charity of their choice, taking that amount right off their taxes.

Fourth, any funding mechanisms proposed as a means of providing effective groups with resources to expand should be assessed for their likelihood of doing harm. Tax credits are better than direct grants because citizens rather than bureaucrats make the decisions, and the officials never get their hands on the money. Vouchers are second best because they also empower individuals. Direct grants by government are the most dangerous arrangement. They need to be handled with great care, if at all.

Fifth, evangelicals should never accept money unless evangelism is allowed. The government official at the top is particularly crucial: He needs to have made a commitment to defend faith–based groups against those who would suppress religious free speech. In terms of our current election, this means that if Al Gore becomes president, evangelicals should oppose any direct federal grantmaking to any religious groups, period. Mr. Gore has made it clear that faith–based groups involved with government won't be able to evangelize on his watch, so the winners in a Gore administration would be theological liberals.

Sixth, eternal vigilance is required. If George W. Bush is elected the road is still perilous, and faith–based groups should still refrain from accepting government money for overhead or for the cores of their programs, including the salaries of leaders. Churches should take no money directly; they should set up a social welfare affiliate to do the job. Churches should also create firewalls around their program cores by separating government money from other accounts and other employees. Those hired for government–funded positions should be informed that the positions are temporary.

Finally, faith–based poverty fighters need help that goes beyond money and volunteer time. Prayer is important, and journalists can show us what to pray for. WORLD's task is clear: Like the prophet Ezekiel's watchman on the walls, we need to sound the alarm when government invades the province of religion, as it now regularly does. With the support of our readers, we will try to do that.

Reprinted by permission of World magazine, copyright 2000.