President Bush’s compassionate conservatism has become downright bleeding-heart. His new proposal to help faith-based organizations aid the needy finally may hush those who consider him a cruel agent of naked capitalism. The ceremony announcing this initiative should disarm activists who marred the inauguration with placards that read “Bush = Racism.” There was America’s new president, surrounded by a multi-hued spectrum of 35 Catholics, Protestants, and Jews as well as Hassan Qazwini, an Islamic imam.
Bush’s proposal is wonderfully intended. It acknowledges that religious and voluntary groups offer more hope to a republic where the federal welfare entitlement was mothballed five years ago while officials literally dynamited abandoned government housing projects.
Still, paying direct federal grants to religious organizations could unleash an avalanche of unintended consequences. There is little risk that, say, Catholic Charities will transform Congress into the College of Cardinals. More likely, Congress — through its purse strings and the desire of aid recipients to see them loosened — will turn Catholic Charities into something resembling a PAC.
Indeed, Catholic Charities, Lutheran Social Services, and similar organizations have Washington lobbyists who schmooze congressional appropriators rather than save souls.
Federal grants nearly always come with strings attached that can bind faith-based charities with foolish rules. Though largely supportive of Bush’s plan, the Heritage Foundation’s Joe Loconte documented this problem in his book Seducing the Samaritan. The Salvation Army’s Jacquelin Triston complained that a federal lunch program in Massachusetts required that any child wanting seconds of any item be given an entire meal. “It was a crazy waste of food,” Triston said. “It just ended up in the trash.”
New England’s 99 percent government-funded Key Program had to offer former juvenile offenders handicapped-accessible facilities although, as the program’s Bill Lyttle observed: “There are not a lot of delinquent kids stealing cars in wheelchairs.”
Worse yet, public funds can encourage faith-based groups to morph into secularized replicas of their former selves. “I have seen this happen,” says Father Robert Sirico, president of the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty. “Some Catholic charities have removed religious symbols, muted their Catholic sensibility, and compromised Christian moral standards — all for fear of loosing government money.”
“Tax money is based on coercion,” says Michael Tanner of the Cato Institute. “There is neither compassion nor love behind a grant of money forcibly taken from taxpayers who may have no desire to support the charity in question.”
Congress surely will debate whether the Boy Scouts should accept gay scout masters before receiving federal grants to continue mentoring poor young men in America’s ghettoes.
The Metropolitan Community Church, meanwhile, performs gay weddings. Should its Manhattan Food Pantry program receive federal subsidies even as the MCC marries same-sex couples?
Louis Farrakhan’s Nation of Islam rehabilitates black ex-convicts. There’s approximately zero chance they would offer these services to the four Orthodox Jewish embezzlers who Bill Clinton offered clemency January 20. How big a grant should the NOI get?
More fundamentally, wonders Tom Riley of the Philanthropy Roundtable, “who’s going to say whether you’re a religion?” He recalls Germany’s recent harassment of Scientology as an ersatz denomination. “One man’s faith-based social service provider is another man’s cult. These are not the sorts of distinctions that Americans are comfortable making.”
Recasting Bush’s plan would avoid these dilemmas. Giving the needy social service vouchers would help them receive a set amount of medical care, drug treatment, job training or other relief. Since recipients would “spend” these vouchers, they would decide whether, say, an alcohol recovery program is uplifting or merely the handiwork of kooks. These decisions are better left to beneficiaries than bureaucrats.
The main drawback of such vouchers, however, is that they could devolve into a new entitlement, complete with a constituency, ballooning budget, and Capitol Hill cheerleaders.
A far better idea would surpass Bush’s $5 billion proposal to extend the charitable tax deduction to non-itemizers. A tax credit would help Americans support worthy charities. If, say, a family owed $1,500 in taxes, it could devote $500 to a private group while sending just $1,000 to the IRS.
This could shift far more money toward outfits that directly aid the downtrodden. Rather than petition a few congressmen for funds, these organizations would compete for the patronage of hundreds or even thousands of potential donors in their communities who would reward those that reach out and rescue people in trouble.
Publications and information services would emerge to guide givers toward the most effective and efficient groups. Whether funds should reach social workers, priests, ministers or rabbis would remain the decisions of private citizens rather than public officials.
A tax-credit approach, Sirico predicts, “would also tend to involve individuals in need projects, because once they have given money, they would be more likely to take an active role; this would also provide a natural, local oversight for these groups, based on the interest the donor would have.”
President Bush’s faith-based initiative is meant to do wonderful things. However, shifting its funding mechanism toward charitable tax credits rather than federal grants sidesteps ticklish church-and-state questions and limits the risk that religious groups might awaken feeling cheap after crawling into bed with Uncle Sam.