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Keeping the Faith
May 30, 2001, Falls Church, VA
© Rabbi Jack Moline

Any good preacher - in fact, even a bad preacher - can take Scripture in hand and make it prove whatever is on his or her mind. In my business, we call it using the text as a pretext. And if you have any doubt that it is a time-honored tradition, you need only look at the denominations, sects and movements of the three Abrahamic faiths represented on this panel today. Each one claims to read sacred text accurately and somewhat differently from the other.

Any good lawyer can do the same thing with the law. Depending on the clauses and the cases, a lawyer can construct a pretty good justification for the legality of just about anything. So when it comes to these matters of charitable choice, of these faith-based initiatives, I am going to make a remarkable concession: I am going to allow, at least for the sake of argument, that it is constitutional. I leave it to the lawyers to argue the details, here or in the courts or, eventually, in the halls of Congress. But I am concerned not with legality. Not everything legal is a good idea. As a citizen, as a person of faith, as a member of the clergy and as a professional in the field of faith-based organizations, I have just this concern: is it a good idea?

And just so there won't be any mystery about it, I give you the short answer up front. It is not a good idea. In fact, especially given the circumstances of this President's intitiative, it is a stinker of an idea. And you can tell by the way initial supporters from senators to ministers are pulling away from White House Office on Faith-Based Initiatives that the reservations I have held from the beginning are dawning on people in every orbit around this notion.

And here are just three of the many reasons why. First of all, this initiative is not about compassion, it is about exploitation. The strength of effective programs, the programs which have inspired President Bush's initiative, is the devotion of thousands of volunteers. These folks - and you know them, you ARE them - express their faith commitments by reaching out to the needy and the underserved, to the troubled and the struggling members of their communities. What you have been able to accomplish is remarkable alongside of existing social services. What the President is hoping is that social service dollars will get more bang for the buck. By shifting the case loads of paid professionals to private volunteers, the government will spend less on human services. Remember, the President's mantra has been "no new dollars." He's just talking about shifting the clients of government agencies into your fellowship hall, and presuming that their presence will inspire more volunteer hours. A faith-based program which delivers hope and rehabilitation to thirty or forty drug abusers each year, providing each one with a personal mentor who will pray with him and read Scripture with her and to build self-esteem and will power would be expected to absorb twice or three times that number if the government funding shifts from a social work agency to a church. Where will those extra volunteers be found? Certainly not in any church, mosque or synagogue I know - our greatest dilemma is human resources. A faith-based program designed to catch people who might otherwise slip through the cracks will itself create the cracks for people to slip through.

Which brings me to the second reason charitable choice is a bad idea. This initiative is not about meeting the needs of the underserved, but about relinquishing responsibility for them. You know, the Jewish community has a history of developing social welfare agencies to care for its needy. Our tradition affirms that a Jewish community which does not care for its neediest is unworthy of being called part of the divine covenant. And so, historically, Jewish communities levied proportional taxes on its members to provide for the hungry, the homeless, the indigent and the underprivileged. That notion, not unfamiliar to Muslims and Christians, was embraced by our government of the people, by the people and for the people. It is the big idea of the Constitution - to establish justice, to promote the general welfare, to ensure the blessings of liberty to us and our posterity. Providing for the tired, poor and huddled masses yearning to breathe free is not just the function of government, it is one of the measures of government.

And yet, the President's initiative would shift primary responsibility away from government and into the private sector for these inconvenient citizens. Imagine if the President were to propose the dissolution of government-funded police and fire services because private agencies could do a better job of ensuring public safety. The arguments are the same - the safest places in the country are those with private security forces, and volunteer fire departments continue to serve many smaller cities and towns admirably. The outcry in the wake of such a proposal would be defeaning, because we expect our government to provide for our needs when we are most vulnerable. It is one of the measures of government, to act with concern and respect for every citizen. Government is the place where our common values as people of faith - and even of people who claim no faith - are writ large. I call it tzelem elohim, being created in the image of God. In our common parlance we call it "human rights." Safeguarding human rights is a government responsibility, not an onerous task to be farmed out to the lowest bidder.

And that brings me to the third reason this notion is a bad idea. As you have heard from virtually every quarter, this initiative is not about cooperation, it is about competitition. And the competition is between both institutions and ideologies. If I were inclined to accept government money at my synagogue to run, say, a day-care program for low-income families, I could envision hiring a rabbi with training in early childhood education who would direct that program three-quarters time at government expense. For one-quarter of a full time salary, I would have the assistance I needed on weekends or summer vacation from a full-fledged resident colleague. What would I be willing to do, how might I be willing to compromise to prevent my friends at the Baptist church to my south or the Methodist and Presbyterian churches to my north from landing that government contract and getting their own assistant minister in Christian education? What prejudices might be fomented by placing religious constituencies in direct competition with each other?

You might find that projection absurd - unless you yourself have ever been involved in competitive bidding among government agencies or contractors.

But it is the ideological competition which worries me more. Among the organizations I admire most is Catholic Charities. Along with groups like Lutheran Social Services and the Jewish Social Service Agency, they have managed to provide non-denominational social services to the general population, some of which are funded by tax dollars. Before applying for funding from the government, the agencies must meet the strict criteria of non-discrimination set by the government.

But in my city, Alexandria, there is a teen health clinic. It opened thirteen years ago amidst great controversy because of its mandate to provide comprehensive health care and information to teenagers on a confidential basis. It was opposed vehemently by a local Catholic priest because of the promise to provide birth control devices and information on abortions. Could Catholic Charities bid to run that clinic, or would it be discriminated against on the basis of its theology? And if not, could concerned Catholics underbid the competition and change public policy by practicing medicine by the faith-based values they are duty-bound to uphold? As a Jew, I don't want the government telling me what to eat or when to work; as a Jew, I don't want the government telling Catholic Charities it must provide condoms and birth control pills to unmarried teens. As an American, I don't want even my own religion dictating what is accessible to every citizen under government auspices. How much the more so would I object to public policy being created by another private enterprise?

As I began, so I end. The lawyers can slug out the constitutional issues. If they prove this initiative to be legally prohibited, then my arguments are moot. But even if the constitution allows it, because it is not about compassion, but about exploitation, because it is not about meeting needs, but about relinquishing responsibility, because it is not about cooperation, but about competition, the President's plan to promote faith-based initiatives fails by its own definition: it is a bad idea precisely because it is not based in good faith.

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