Faith-Based Initiatives

George W. Bush won my vote for president four years ago. At the time, of course, Dubya was hip-deep in Lone Star political machination, serving his first term as guv’na of the state. WORLD magazine, to which I subscribed at the time and to which I’d still be subscribing if I could find the time to read it, ran an article regarding the Texas Department of Public Welfare, which had trained its considerable sights on bringing a couple of faith-based programs into line. Apparently, these ministries weren’t crossing every administrative “T” and dotting every bureaucratic “I” in a just-so way to the satisfaction of someone in the office of “We’ve Got Nothing Better to Do Than Harass You”. The ministries in question were engaged in drug treatment, and had achieved a success rate (as measured by people getting off of drugs and staying off) of well over fifty percent. By contrast, state-run drug treatment programs, financed by the good taxpaying citizens of Texas, boasted a four-percent rate of success.

Now, one would assume that any garden-variety Bozo could put together a drug treatment program and achieve a success rate in the general ballpark of what the state was getting, if “the ballpark” can be defined as “within four percentage points or so”. In other words, the state just wasn’t cutting the muster with its attempts, while these ministries were running circles around them. And yet, somewhere in the bowels of the “Twiddle our Thumbs and Pick our Noses” division of the aforementioned office of the Texas DPW, some pointy-headed pencil-pusher decided that these ministries had to be stopped! Why, they aren’t flatchflopping the kanoozlewarpus correctly! Let’s shut ‘em down!

Irate, I sat down at my computer and fired off a letter to my buddy Dubya. “No, I’m not a citizen of the great state of Texas”, I essentially said, carefully neglecting to mention my utter abhorrence of the Dallas Cowboys, “but I am a believer in the principles of limited government, and if the Republican Revolution of ‘94 (during which Mr. Bush defeated Ma Richards to become governor) meant anything, it meant getting the government out of our hair every time we turn around!” To which Governor Bush responded a few days later by writing me (and assumedly thousands of others similarly incensed) that he had issued a cease-and-desist order to the DPW. I was exhilarated; here was a man with a bucketload of that precious commodity known as “common sense”, and who had the backbone to act upon it!

Fast-forward now to today. Mr. Bush goes to Washington, and he brings his faith with him, as well as his common-sense. One of his first policy initiatives is to suggest that we move some tax money into the coffers of faith-based charities in order to better fix some of the social ills of our nation. Great idea, right?

Well, not quite so fast. Don’t get me wrong; I’m not saying I’m agin’ it. But to overuse an already hackneyed phrase, the devil will be in the details of this proposal. And we’d better not sign off on such a deal until we know what that devil is up to.

Now, let’s admit what should be obvious up front: the private sector consistently outperforms the public in essentially everything it deems important enough to tackle. I’m sure that the government must do something better than private enterprise could; it’s just that no examples come to mind. Mr. Bush understands this, as does anyone who takes an honest look at the issue. The inefficiency of government is legendary and needs little proving. The all-too-frequent lack of accountability which seems to inhere in government operations is one major facet of this inefficiency. Marvin Olasky, in his landmark The Tragedy of American Compassion, points out that this lack of accountability (an accountability which characterized church-administered charity in the nineteenth century) is a major factor in the massive failure of the welfare state. In our modern state-run attempts at welfare, there has been seemingly little discrimination made between the truly needy and true bums, whereas the attitude of faith-based initiatives in earlier years was, “if a man won’t work, neither shall he eat.” Today, it’s called “tough love”; it used to be the norm.

These faith-based initiatives still work today because they often insist upon this accountability, and even more importantly because they recognize the vital role of faith. Whereas the liberal approach is to attempt to change behavior from the outside in (“here’s a welfare check”), these ministries offer hope through inward change. Faith-based organizations bring the “God factor” into the equation, and with great results.

So where is the rub? Why not fund these faith-based approaches with public funds? The issue is simple, and the ultimate answer will determine whether this is a good idea, or a disastrous one. What federal strings will come with federal dollars? Will churches and mosques and synagogues and missions be able to freely speak about their faiths, or will there be restrictions? Will drug addicts be able to hear about the “God factor”, or will there be an attempt at muzzling all such discussion? Will faith-based organizations be expected to segment their ministries into different zones, with public-financed areas being labeled “truth-restricted”?

The jury is out right now; while it is likely that President Bush intends no such restriction, the history of government intrusion offers little comfort. If a system can be designed whereby faith communities can freely speak of the “God factor”, then the potential exists for much good to be done. If safeguards are not in place to guard religious speech, however, any victory won in this arena by the administration will be P

Leave a Comment