From the Worldwide Faith News archives www.wfn.org
Church leaders warily hopeful of Bush initiative
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.
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
"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,"
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.
"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
"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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