After The Hurricanes

Government Should Not Subsidize Proselytism

In the wake of the recent back-to-back Gulf Coast hurricanes, Americans showed their generosity by donating millions to help those displaced by the storms. Religious groups were among those lending a hand, and many did commendable work.

But some church-based organizations saw Hurricanes Katrina and Rita as opportunities to impose high-pressure evangelism on a population at its most vulnerable. Worse yet, it’s possible your tax dollars could pay for some of this.

The Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) has announced that it will reimburse some religious groups for the expenses they incurred helping hurricane evacuees. This is cause for concern because the agency has a poor track record in this area. Shortly after Hurricane Katrina, FEMA listed TV preacher Pat Robertson’s Operation Blessing on its Web site as a group providing relief, despite that charity’s checkered past.

We are wandering into constitutionally dangerous waters. Americans should be expected to pay only for secular relief programs, not proselytism. Yet many fundamentalist-oriented groups cannot seem to distinguish between the two.

After the hurricanes, denominational news services and Religious Right publications were full of stories about theologically hard-line groups bragging about their evangelistic efforts in the Gulf region.

For example, controversial evangelist Franklin Graham openly talked about his desire to see a “revival” in devastated New Orleans. His charity, Samaritan’s Purse, gave evacuee children gospel tracts and toy lambs that played “Jesus Loves Me.”

Graham has been clear about his goals. On the Samaritan’s Purse Web site he is quoted as saying, “[I]n everything you do, I encourage you to remember that your primary purpose is to share the redeeming love of the Lord Jesus Christ.”

During a speech at Liberty University, Graham implied that New Orleans got what was coming to it. “There’s been satanic worship,” he said. “There’s been sexual perversion.” After criticism, Graham later denied that he was saying the storm was God’s judgment but then added, “It is a city that has strong ties to the gay and lesbian movement and these types of things.”

Graham insisted his group has not received government funding for its work in the Gulf region. This may be true. But we do know that the organization’s financial statement for 2003 shows it received $7.3 million in government grants.

The Southern Baptist Convention, the nation’s largest Protestant denomination, has also been boasting about its conversion efforts in the storm-wrecked region.

“It’s hard to put into words how God is opening up doors for ministry and especially sharing the Gospel,” Pastor Jay Adkins of the First Baptist Church in Westwego, La., told Baptist Press.

Adkins noted that his community is heavily Roman Catholic. But as far as Baptist Press is concerned, those folks are just lost souls ripe for conversion. “God has been working on their hearts,” the denominational news agency reported.

Pastor Bobby Welch, president of the Southern Baptist Convention, told members of the church’s executive committee, “When you go and you give the cup of cold water, you be sure you give a witness of Jesus Christ. Don’t just smile and say, ‘I go to church.’ You give a witness of Jesus Christ to those people because the water, the beanie weenies and the food will run out, but whoever drinks of this water will never thirst again. It will not run out. That is our biblical distinctive.”

Does FEMA have a plan for limiting reimbursement only to groups with the primary goal of helping those in need, not winning converts? Given that agency’s inept performance after Katrina, it’s reasonable to doubt that.

In fact, the Bush administration’s height­ened promotion of “faith-based” initiatives, coming so closely on the heels of the killer storms, is cause for concern. The administration appeared to be using human tragedy to advance a controversial policy goal. That simply isn’t right.

FEMA’s approach in this delicate area needs to be guided by the commands of the Constitution, not petty political objectives. Cutting a check and handing it over to a wealthy TV-based ministry or group tied to a denomination with millions of members whose first goal was to spread the Gospel is not acceptable.

At the end of the day, it’s essential for the government to look at the facts. Many religious groups really wanted to offer aid to those in need after the storm and did so without pressing religion on anyone.

Other religious groups looked at the devastation and saw an opportunity for proselytism – a chance to win souls by approaching people who had lost everything, people who were at their most vulnerable. These groups have a free exercise right to preach, but they certainly don’t have a right to taxpayer support.

Religious organizations that want “faith-based” aid must understand that it comes with a price: The groups must agree to serve the public interest and offer secular aid.

Groups that want to serve a private religious interest will have to pay for that on their own. No one wants to deny these groups the right to come into a storm-ravaged area and spread their messages. They simply have no right to expect taxpayers to subsidize those activities.