Cal Thomas: Welfare for Religion

Cal Thomas | Syndicated columnist | Tuesday, October 8, 2002

Cal Thomas: Welfare for Religion

The Maryland minister is a fervent opponent of gambling. He especially opposes the state lottery, which he believes tempts many of his lower income African-American congregants to throw away money on a pipe dream. The minister is surprised to learn that his wife has won a top prize in the lottery since she has been secretly buying tickets, even while listening to his anti-gambling sermons.

A television reporter interviews the couple. The woman looks slightly embarrassed as the reporter asks the minister what he thinks about his wife playing the lottery and winning a lot of money."The Lord moves in mysterious ways His wonders to perform," says the minister.

I thought of this several-years-old incident when I read that religious broadcaster Pat Robertson is one of several to receive a grant from the federal Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, which go to religious organizations that provide social services. Among Robertson's ministries is a charity called Operation Blessing that, according to its Web page,"helps impoverished families and individuals around the world."

What links Robertson to the Maryland pastor is that until Robertson received the $500,000 government grant, he had criticized the faith-based initiative as a"Pandora's box," saying it could make religious charities dependent on government and even finance cults that"brainwash" people. So why is he taking the money, especially when government cannot discriminate among religions and may finance other organizations whose beliefs are anathema to Robertson and other conservative Christians? Is this the Lord moving in mysterious ways, or is it temptation from the other guy?

While the intent of this program is noble, the idea of government aiding charity (which used to begin at home, but will now apparently begin in Washington) is fraught with problems. First is the purpose of charity. The Scriptures in which Robertson and other conservative Christians say they believe teach that charity is a means of demonstrating God's love to needy people so they might seek Him. Many liberals view charity as a type of religious welfare and"salvation by works."

There is also a political dimension. The Bush administration is smiling favorably on a small percentage of applicants for federal largess (there were 500 grant applicants, but only 25 received the government's blessing, though more awards are likely). A future Democratic administration might deny grants to organizations that lean Republican and shift the money to those with leanings more to that administration's liking. Charities will then become another special interest, selling their political allegiance to the higher bidder.

One of the rationales behind the faith-based office is that churches and charities often perform better than government in helping meet individual needs. That's true. But it does not follow that government should (ital) help (unital) charities fulfill their calling. Has God declared bankruptcy? Psalm 50:10 says God owns"the cattle on a thousand hills."

The purpose of charity is to not only benefit the recipient but to bless the giver. That is what Jesus meant when He said,"It is more blessed to give than to receive" (Acts 20:35). If givers, or people who might give, see government supplanting their calling, the human tendency will be to give less, or not at all, because government is giving more. If government wishes to bless charities, it should either cut taxes - enabling individuals to give more money to the charity of (ital) their (unital) choice - or provide other tax incentives, such as allowing double deductions for charitable giving.

Government should not decide who deserves funding and who does not. That is an endorsement of one religion or religions over others. Furthermore, the day will come when religious groups will be required to remain silent about their beliefs if they want to continue receiving government checks. By then, some will have compromised sufficiently to choose Mammon over God.

Conservative Christians rightly complain when the National Endowment for the Arts underwrites anti-religious works they find offensive. They cannot now favor government grants just because money is coming to them. While it can be argued that in one case the money was meant to demean religion and the other to enhance it, the principle is the same.

Robertson was right to warn of a"Pandora's box." But he has now opened that box and is taking the money. It doesn't take a prophet to see trouble ahead.

Cal Thomas: Welfare for Religion