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Popular Misconceptions about Faith-based Initiatives

Dr. Tony Evans | The Urban Alternative | Thursday, May 10, 2007

Popular Misconceptions about Faith-based Initiatives

May 10, 2007

Faith-based initiatives are in the news again. Unfortunately, some of their strongest opponents still don’t seem to understand what they really do.

The Supreme Court heard oral arguments in its first case involving faith-based initiatives Feb. 28 A decision is expected by the end of the court’s term this summer.

When the Court agreed to hear the case, the Rev. Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said, “We believe that no tax money should be spent to advance religion.”

That’s one of the common misconceptions about faith-based initiatives. It couldn’t be further from the truth.

Faith-based initiatives aren’t a way to advance religion. They’re a  way of advancing social programs run by religious groups. It’s an important distinction.

The White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives offers this advice to faith-based organizations:

“The United States Supreme Court has said that faith-based organizations may not use direct government support to support ‘inherently religious’ activities. Don't be put off by the term ‘inherently religious’ -- it's simply a phrase that has been used by the courts in church-state cases. Basically, it means you can not use any part of a direct Federal grant to fund religious worship, instruction, or proselytization. Instead, organizations may use government money only to support the non-religious social services that they provide.”

That’s why so many faith-based organizations set up 501(c)(3) corporations – to keep government-funded programs separate from religious activities.

The case the Supreme Court is considering is a narrow but important one. The Court will determine whether three taxpayers have the right to sue over the use of executive funds – without Congressional approval -- to promote faith-based initiatives. The Court won’t consider whether faith-based initiatives violate the First Amendment’s ban on government establishment of religion.

If you’re a student of history, you know that faith-based organizations are as old as religion itself. You can open up the New Testament and read story after story about Jesus feeding, healing and comforting people. Even then, the practice of reaching out to people in need was thousands of years old, in the Judeo-Christian tradition and other religious traditions.

In this country, faith-based organizations have a long history of helping people in need.

But all too often, complicated rules and regulations have prevented them from competing for federal funds on an equal footing with other organizations. President George W. Bush says that besides being inherently unfair, such an approach can waste taxpayer dollars and cut the poor off from successful programs. It also can reinforce an impersonal federal bureaucracy.

“Government cannot bring hope to our hearts,” he says.  “I am convinced that faith is exactly what is needed to solve the problems that face America today….

“Government has no business funding religious worship or teaching. However, our government should support the good work of religious people who are changing the world.’’

When it comes to social programs, the separation of church and state is a suburban, not an urban, issue.

In the urban community, where we have all these needs and all these problems, we want to get help from as many places as we can. Without the church, urban leaders can’t do what they do. The church is the only mechanism for mass mobilization. That’s why the Civil Rights movement came out of the church.

Government can run and fund programs, but it can’t love, it can’t show compassion, and it can’t embrace. Faith is designed to have social implications, not just heavenly ones.

In the urban community, the church doesn’t just take people to heaven, it feeds, clothes and houses them. It teaches them how to read and gets them jobs.

When I was growing up in the inner city of Baltimore, I saw first-hand the challenges that urban kids face – poverty, violence, promiscuity, chemical addictions and family disintegration. The government has spent trillions of dollars trying to reverse this spiral of social disintegration, yet the problems grow worse each day.

Government is not the answer. The Supreme Court should let faith-based organizations do their job.

Dr. Tony Evans is the senior pastor of Oak Cliff Bible Fellowship in Dallas and the president of The Urban Alternative, his national ministry. He is also the founder of the National Church Adopt-A-School Initiative, and President Bush has credited him with inspiring his interest in faith-based initiatives.