A good preacher, like a good politician, can make a case for whichever side of a question he wants to argue. When it comes to charitable choice, I like to think that the ability to make a case in both directions - for the government and for the religious community - lead us to the same conclusion.
Almost two thousand years ago, the architects of Jewish tradition began collecting the wisdom that flowed in study halls and synagogues. One of those collections is the Talmud, and one section of the Talmud is known as the Ethics of the Fathers.
Speaking of the religious community, one rabbi (Rabban Gamliel III) said, "Be cautious with those in political authority, for they draw a person close only for their own ends. They wear the guise of friends when it profits them, but they will not stand by you in your hour of distress." (Avot 2:3)
The message is clear: government is in the business of government. If it has any integrity - and our government most certainly does - it will act only in the interests of its own principles. When it so happens that the interests of another community - in this case, the Jewish community - coincides with the interests of government, it should not be assumed that they travel the same path. Sooner or later, the government will abandon the temporary ally.
Speaking of the government, another rabbi (Rabbi Hannina) said, "Pray for the well-being of the government, for if it were not for the respect of it, people would swallow each other alive." (Avot 3:2)
The message is clear: the function of government is to protect the strongest factions in society from overwhelming the weaker ones. An independent government that can command the respect of every citizen is necessary to the general welfare. To place its power behind the exclusive agenda of a sub-group is to undermine the respect for government as whole.
It may be that no advice from an ancient rabbi nor any from one who sometimes just feels ancient will divert this administration from pursuing the entanglement of government and religion. But any time you get Welton Gaddy and Pat Robertson on the same side of a debate, even if they get there for very different reasons, we ought to sit up and take notice.
And one way to do that is read carefully the booklet published by The Interfaith Alliance Foundation and the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs. Without compromising our skepticism about the entire endeavor of Charitable Choice, this booklet sets out guidelines for those who choose to navigate these treacherous waters.
And if you will allow me one more observation, I will clear the way for my colleagues to add their perspectives. I find nothing nefarious in the desire of the Bush administration to draw on the strength and success of our nation's religious communities, and I find no ulterior motive in the willingness of religious communities to accept that help. But all of us who are people of faith know that no person's problems can be solved by throwing money at it. A real solution requires a change of heart, a change of perspective, a renewal of spirit. What is true for a human being is true for a government as well. Funding private agencies to meet the needs of our poor, our vulnerable, our under-served will not change the heart, change the perspective or renew the spirit of this government to make it a partner in our goal to provide a better life for all Americans. It will only delude us into believing we are doing the right thing, and surprise us when it turns out we are not...