From the Worldwide Faith News archives

Church leaders warily hopeful of Bush initiative

Date 20 Feb 2001 13:22:46


Church leaders warily hopeful of Bush initiative

by Jerry Hames

      (Episcopal Life) Many who supervise Episcopal social-service agencies 
across the country are reacting to President Bush's announcement of increased 
government funds for faith-based charities with a single word: caution.

     The initiative, announced during a series of appearances by the new 
president in late January, would allow faith-based groups to compete for about 
$10 billion in funds for various social-service programs.

     At the same time, Bush said that the federal government must maintain the 
constitutional separation of church and state and that federal funds would not be 
used for expressly religious purposes.

     "It is charities who turn cold cities into true communities," he said, 
arguing that faith-based charities ought to be able to compete for money on an 
equal basis with secular charities.

New commitment

     Episcopal reaction seemed to reflect a poll by Ellison Research that found 
Protestant clergy lukewarm to the plan. It found that 46 percent offered weak 
support, 24 percent said they were mildly opposed, while only 17 percent strongly 
supported it and 13 percent were strongly opposed.

     "We have very little guidance from the General Convention of Executive 
Council on these issues and, given their complexity, I don't have an immediate 
recommendation," said Thomas Hart of the church's public-policy office in 

     "Overall, I'm hopeful that, despite the numerous challenges, this initiative 
signals a commitment to poor and needy people in this country that we did not 
expect," he added. "While there is danger that it is merely an attempt to cut 
federal spending on social services, and simply let the churches handle it, I 
don't get that impression so far."

     A spokesperson for the Episcopal public-policy office said its staff was 
deluged with calls the day after Bush's announcement. Many were from those who 
operate the church's hundreds of parish- and diocesan-supported Jubilee 

Bureaucratic hell?

     "We're doing a lot of work and we'd like more money, say that trillion-and-
a-half [dollar] tax cut," said the Rev. Jim Donald of St. Columba's Episcopal 
Church in Washington. "But when you get into working with the government, you get 
into a kind of bureaucratic hell."

     Donald speaks from experience. When he was involved in an earlier 
rehabilitation project of an old house for 14 residents, his group had to file 
papers, he said, "as if we were building a 5,000-unit apartment complex."

     Some were exuberant at Bush's announcement. The Rev. Canon Peter Larom, 
executive director of the Seamen's Church Institute of New York and New Jersey, 
said he would encourage churches and other faith-based organizations to tailor 
their programs to fit government financing requirements.

     "Faith-based organizations have no compelling reason not to be at the table 
of government funding," he said. "This funding has not compromised the mission of 
faith communities. Instead, it has helped revitalize mission and ministry."

     In fact, many have enjoyed government support over the past three decades. 
Churches initiated government-funded low-income housing programs in the 1960s, 
homeless shelters and soup kitchens in the '80s and overseas relief efforts and 
resettlement of refugees for a much longer period of time.

Implications for churches

     The Rev. Canon Brian Grieves, director of peace and justice ministries at 
the Episcopal Church Center, said Episcopal agencies and projects have benefited 
from government funds for years. Federal grants support totally the work of 
Episcopal Migration Ministries; the Rev. Carmen Guerrero, Jubilee Ministries 
staff officer, estimates that $50 million in grants has helped support parish and 
diocesan Jubilee projects in the past two years.

     Grieves said his office will be looking carefully at the implications of 
Bush's initiative. "There's a lot of questions to be answered before we can 
decide whether to bring a recommendation to the attention of Executive Council," 
he said. 

     Some dioceses, anticipating a host of questions from parishes, are already 
gearing up. In the Diocese of Los Angeles, Bishop Coadjutor Jon Bruno has 
established a "diocesan clearinghouse" for information provided by the new White 
House Office for Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, which opened Feb. 20.

     Bush's initiative comes at a time when the church's social-service providers 
say that, even though fewer Americans receive government subsidies because of 
1996 welfare-reform legislation, many are poorer. As people are pushed from 
welfare, a survey by the National Council of Churches of Christ (NCC) notes, 
their care is being shifted from government agencies to the non-profit sector. 
And non-profits, including the churches, have a limited capacity to meet the 

     "Faith-based organizations are being called upon to take on more than they 
are able to offer," said Mary Cooper of the NCC's Washington office, who tallied 
the results. The NCC canvassed social-service providers and advocates from its 36 
mainline Protestant and Orthodox member denominations and from state and local 
ecumenical and interfaith programs.

     Overwhelmingly, respondents said, working families are the fastest-growing 
group in need, and more and more of them are coming to faith-based organizations 
and other non-profits seeking food and help with rent, mortgage and utility 
payments, child care, job training and placement.

Beyond capacity

     "Just getting a job is not sufficient to get out of poverty," Cooper said. 
"We have to help policy makers understand that."

     While the issue of church-state separation may create a legal wrangle, some 
are wondering about the basic matters of time, energy and equity for already-busy 
religious organizations.

     "I think a lot of congregations are going to think about Bush's proposal as 
something that is outside the range of possibilities for a whole variety of 
reasons," said Nancy Ammerman, professor of sociology at Hartford Seminary in 
Connecticut. "One is that it's not their primary mission and the other is that 
they may already feel like they are at capacity for what they can do."

     Ammerman, who spoke recently at Hartford's Trinity College, an Episcopal 
school, on religion's effect on social services, predicted that it is more likely 
that congregations would leave the work proposed by Bush to other kinds of 
religious non-profits, such as Catholic Charities, long a partner with government 
on social-service programs.

     At Bush's announcement on January 29, the faith-based groups represented 
were diverse--from Christian to Jewish to Muslim organizations--but evangelical 
Protestant ministries such as Teen Challenge and Prison Fellowship had more of 
the limelight than mainline Protestant ones.

     Roman Catholic bishops initially have welcomed the plan, but cautioned 
against excessive government red tape or forcing religious groups to dilute their 
message in exchange for government funds.

     "Our bishops' conference particularly welcomes the clear recognition by the 
president that faith-based and community efforts cannot substitute for just 
public policy and the responsibilities of the larger society, including the 
federal government," said Los Angeles Cardinal Roger Mahony, speaking for the 
bishops' domestic policy committee.

     Barry Lynn, an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ who is head 
of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, opposes the plan. "I've 
never seen government touch religion where it didn't either trivialize it or 
politicize it," he said.

     "Taking government money is like taking a trip to Temptation Island," Lynn 
said. "Just don't do it."

--Jerry Hames is editor of Episcopal Life.

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