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April 2001
Volume 19, Number 4

Compulsory Compassion
Carl F. Horowitz

Religious social services soon may be getting a new ally in their efforts to rescue people from the clutches of poverty, drug addiction and other personal problems: the federal government. The hook is "compassionate conservatism," and as the linchpin of President Bush's domestic policy, stand-and-deliver time has come early. But his plan, if fully realized, should succeed mainly in underscoring the folly of state-sponsored private charity of any type.  

President Bush late in January issued an executive order creating a new White House entity, the Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. The plan envisions more than $700 million over the next decade for a "Federal Compassion Capital Fund" to provide seed money for small charities, religious ones included. Mainstream conservatives were aglow at the prospects. Linda Chavez, our almost-secretary of labor, wrote in her national column, "[A]llowing religious organizations to compete for some of the billions of dollars the government will spend in the next decade to treat drug addicts, or rehabilitate convicts or help poor people seems worth at least a small leap of faith-- even by liberals."

To that one must say, look before ye leap. There is nothing particularly new about religious philanthropies in the US receiving government assistance; indeed, about 65 percent of Catholic Charities--$2.3 billion annual budget now comes from federal, state, and local government sources.

But the president's initiative breaks with the past by joining religion and the state in ways thought unimaginable only a decade ago. "Government cannot be replaced by charities, but it can welcome them as partners instead of resenting them as rivals," President Bush told a National Prayer Breakfast February 1, 2001.

The rationale of the Bush plan, at least, seems sound. Conservatives properly argue that poverty is often a product of individuals failing to exercise sound moral judgment. Whereas government antipoverty programs implicitly assume that only external impersonal forces (e.g., "lack of opportunity" ) make and keep people poor, religious charities get more effective results by counseling people one-on-one to heal them of deep-seated problems.

The welfare state ought not to supplant charitable efforts that instill personal responsibility. But this brand of compassion rests on a basic premise: Donations from congregations and other private sources only can go so far in meeting budgets. Thus, to win a truly conservative war on poverty, government must redirect a large portion of its current aid toward conservative religious groups.

The plan, contrary to White House assurances, will create bushels of bureaucracy. President Bush's plan requires that 5 cabinet agencies set up their own faith-based offices. It will also coordinate federal funding from multiple government agencies and "encourage" states to establish their own faith-based offices.  

The track record of government-elevated religious armies of compassion has been something less than promising. The high profile of two supporters in particular should sound alarm bells. One is Rev. Eugene Rivers, a black minister from Boston who for some time has been a cause célèbre on the conservative-empowerment circuit. On a recent edition of CNN's debate show, Crossfire, a barely coherent Rivers denounced "right-wing" opposition to affirmative action as diminishing black self-confidence. The "bottom line," he added, is "the use of sacred institutions to serve secular purposes."

Why didn't conservative wunderkind co-host Tucker Carlson jump all over this Jesse Jackson clone? Here's why not: Because black activists like Rivers, and the Republican activists who swoon over him, serve as vehicles for each other's political ambitions. If a decade ago Polly Williams and the late Kimi Gray could hustle alms and photo-ops from the Right, why can't Rivers get on the gravy train as well?

What do defenders of the free market have to say about the prospects of government-sponsored religious charity? Some have pointed out that when clergymen become grantsmen, they can't devote as much time to their programs. Worse, government interference compromises the religious nature of church programs themselves; there's no such thing as "no strings attached." This sort of reasoning is evident among libertarians such as Doug Bandow, John Hood, and Karl Zinsmeister.

Formally speaking, it's on firm ground. But on a broader, practical level, this focus contains a fatal flaw. Suppose state intervention, where properly applied, enhances the effectiveness of religious social-service providers-- or so supporters will be apt to claim. And make no mistake about it: Eugene Rivers and other well-tended grantees will stand ready to testify to Congress that faith-based welfare programs are roaring successes and need more money to replicate their efforts.

Let it thus be stated: Whether or not government funding makes a religious group's programs less religious is a real, but secondary issue; the primary issue is the coercion used to support the funding in the first place.

Ironically, the argument that religion needs state support implicitly mistrusts the ability of houses of worship to attract donors on their own. Surely if a particular church-run charity does a fine job, its track record ought to generate sufficient private revenues. Supporters of coercion in the service of charity and/or religion assume that individual, corporate, and nonprofit donors are too poor or stingy to be trusted to fully open their wallets.

The sophistry used to justify a government-- faith partnership reveals more about the intellectual confusion, and lack of principle, now reigning on the American Right than about the shortcomings, real or imagined, of religious charities. 


Carl F. Horowitz is a Washington-area consultant on welfare issues. He formerly was a correspondent with Investor's Business Daily.


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