The new initiative by the Bush administration to shift tax dollars to religious organizations raises some serious questions about one of the underlying principles of Baptist polity, the separation of church and state.
The creation of an Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives in the White House not only challenges the fundamental principles of religious freedom but is an affront to the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. This initiative can only be seen as another effort to muffle the prophetic voice of the African-American church. History has taught us over and over again that "the one who pays the piper calls the tune."
The African-American church has always been in the forefront in the delivery of social services and in meeting human need. This new initiative does nothing to change that fact. What it does, however, is to institutionalizecooperation with the government and churches by allocating tax dollars to religious organizations instead of the government facing up to its responsibility of providing more dollars out of the huge national surplus to directly aid the poor and needy.
This new initiative also raises some serious questions as to how the African-American church can maintain its prophetic voice when it accepts funds from taxpayers to run meager programs that do nothing to change the systems and structures that promote, and feed, the poverty and oppression that is so evident in the African-American community.
As a firm believer in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and as a member of the convention that provided the denominational home for the late Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., I am convinced that charitable choice is akin to Judas accepting 30 pieces of silver to betray our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. I say this because we cannot, during these critical times in our history, allow any program, no matter how glamorous it seems, to knock holes in the wall of separation between church and state, especially when African Americans still remain at the bottom when it comes to receiving services and getting the opportunity to fully live the American dream.
Today, more than ever, the African-American church is called upon to be the prophetic voice and witness to society.
The charitable choice initiative will put undue pressure on churches to abide by government regulations and will eventually create and encourage competition among religious organizations for the scraps from the table of government programs while the majority of the poor continue to suffer from benign neglect.
Charitable choice will eventually suffocate the role of the church in being the voice that cries in the wilderness for those who are voiceless.
If the African-American church embraces charitable choice, it will no longer be able to go to Bethel and cry: "Let justice roll down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream."
C. Mackey Daniels is president of the Progressive National Baptist Convention Inc. This essay is reprinted with permission from Report from the Capital, the newsletter of the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs.
God's Name In Vain: Stephen Carter's Flawed Logic On Religion And Politics
By David Bloomberg
President George W. Bush's "faith-based" initiative has stirred extraordinary controversy among political and religious leaders to the point that even some of his usual allies are unhappy with the results. His desire to increase the role of religion in public life, however, is not a new subject in the arena of public debate.
Yale Law Professor Stephen L. Carter has his own opinions on these matters, and shared them in his new book, God's Name In Vain: The Wrongs and Rights of Religion in Politics (Basic Books, $26). The book is a double-edged sword for those who support separation of church and state. They will nod in concurrence with his view that religion is hurt by church-state entanglements, but those nods will turn into vigorous disagreement when he discusses how religious groups should be treated under the law.
Previous Christian writers, such as Cal Thomas and C.S. Lewis, both of whom Carter quotes several times, have noted that religion comes out on the losing end when church and state mix. Carter agrees, asserting, "A religion that becomes too settled in the secular political sphere, happily amassing influence and using it, is likely to lose its best and most spiritual self." He further explains that this has already happened to many European churches, which "have redefined their role, trying to please humans instead of pleasing God."
Here in the United States, Carter cites the Christian Coalition as an example of such a group. He says Coalition activists have been so connected to the Republican Party that they focus more on getting politicians elected than on what Christians should do. As a critical example, he points to the 1995 "Contract with the American Family," of which he says: "The problem is that the 'Contract,' even though produced by the Christian Coalition, is not even a religious document, to say nothing of a Christian one. It is a secular political document, setting forth a secular political program, justified with secular political argument."
Carter even goes so far as to say separationists should be happy that the Christian Coalition achieved power in the GOP because that means the group has become "domesticated." However, most would disagree with that statement and with Carter's other thoughts because he says, in essence, that religious groups should be given special preference and that the government uses a variety of laws to keep religion under its thumb.
To support this claim, he repeatedly brings up historical references to religious groups helping to end slavery and segregation, fighting for labor rights, etc. He uses these examples to reinforce his contention that keeping religion out of government is antithetical to our nation's history and will hurt its future.
In this, Carter's logic is flawed. He says that because earlier preachers fought for good causes, our current laws prohibiting church-state entanglements must be bad basically: the ends (a good cause) justify the means (religious interference in government). Also, the ends are not always good. Using one of his own examples, there were other preachers who actually fought for slavery. Carter mentions this, but mostly as an aside.
Furthermore, nothing actually prevents religious groups from opposing or supporting certain causes. Those groups must simply stay away from more partisan political actions in accordance with the same laws that apply to other non-profit organizations.
In one part of his discussion about such laws, Carter erroneously claims that Americans United had, as of the Fall of 1999, reported 21 religious groups to the IRS for their partisan politicking, and that all but one had endorsed Republicans. In fact, AU had reported 26 groups: 18 had endorsed Republicans, 7 favored Democrats and one involved a nonpartisan election. It is unclear as to where Carter got those inaccurate figures.
Meanwhile, Carter relegates one of the most important related points to a footnote. He says that an environmental leader can encourage people to vote against a given politician but a preacher cannot. He uses the footnote, however, to admit that a 501(c)(3) non-profit environmental organization is subject to the same rules against such candidate endorsements as a religious group of the same type. Thus, his argument on this point falls apart the environmentalist is actually held to the same standard as the preacher.
In this and other issues, Carter frequently creates straw men to knock down in his arguments. For example, while discussing the tax code, he claims the government "doles out benefits to those churches that preach the right messages and denies those benefits to churches that preach the wrong ones." He seems to miss the point that it is not the message that is problematic, but their method, which violates the laws governing all such non-profit organizations.
Carter believes that religious groups are better off staying out of electoral politics and criticizes those who try to bring them together. But he also believes that the government shouldn't be the ones telling them to keep out. He does an inadequate job of supporting these positions, and all too often lapses into the kind of statements separationists are used to seeing from the very people Carter criticizes.
David Bloomberg is a freelance writer living in Springfield, Ill. He can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.