Don’t Fall for the Office of Faith-Based Initiatives

The Office of Faith-Based Initiatives must go.

Many people, many Christian people, hailed the creation of the White House Office of Faith-Based Initiatives in 2001 as a real improvement in the government of the USA. The US has no state religion, and the role of religion in this country has always struggled with the tension between preserving religious liberty and providing powerful influence for good in the government and the society. Many felt that the creation of the Office of Faith-Based Initiatives meant that the government had decided to be more open to influence from the faith community, and among those of that opinion, most thought such a change was for the good of the nation.

There were a few people of faith who dissented from that viewpoint, futilely pointing out that the lesson of the old aphorism “He who pays the piper calls the tune” was being ignored. While clerics around the country celebrated the opportunity to use state money to fund their mission outreach in the form of social services, a few Christians pointed out that the office was set up precisely for the purpose of achieving the state’s social service goals, not the church’s goals. Where’s the problem? The goal of Christians who provide social services is to be Christ to the people they serve. They share their faith as an integral part of the service they provide, because they fervently believe that people need Christ more than they need food. Christians provide social service in the context of prayer and Bible study and evangelistic outreach. They do it this way, because they believe that the most precious thing they can share with anyone is Christ himself, the savior of the world. Christians actually believe that people who receive Christ have received something that transcends their earthly circumstances. The social services that provide food, clothing and shelter are actions obedient to the teachings of Christ, not mere human kindness.

The government, on the other hand, does not want to be perceived as establishing any religion. In keeping with that standard, the original announcements from the Office of Faith-Based Initiatives seemed to say that the government would provide money in ways that did not comingle the objectives of government social services and those of religious discipleship. The policy seemed kind and benign to many. The government would simply fund the purchase of food and would not interfere with prayers offered while serving or eating the food. The office would provide grants that funded the provision of ice, fresh water and blankets to hurricane victims, and would not interfere with the free speech of volunteers who handed out those supplies with prayers and blessings. Not surprisingly, the voices of individuals and groups concerned about freedom from the influence of religion soon made those original simple expectations unworkable.  It was not long before policies were developed with a view to protecting the government from any hint that it might be engaged in the “establishment” of religion. For example:

  • Grant recipients may not use direct government funds to support inherently religious activities such as prayer, worship, religious instruction, or proselytization. (The issue of proselytization is the one that is most problematic, since any mention of religion or faith might be interpreted as an invitation to discipleship.)
  • Any inherently religious activities that a grant recipient offers must be offered at a separate time and in a different location from services that receive federal assistance. (It can be very difficult for a Christian group to know how to comply with such a requirement. The logistics of separating such activities may be extremely cumbersome when providing disaster relief, for example. Furthermore, such a requirement actually flies in the face of the Christian teaching that our lives are completely sacred, not divided into sacred and secular pigeonholes that control our speech. What’s more, it is legally conceivable that such a requirement actually suppresses free speech and free exercise in an unconstitutional way.)
  • Grant recipients are forbidden to discriminate on the basis of religion when providing services (probably the least worrisome requirement, since few faith-based groups have ever restricted their services to the adherents of their own faith).

The bottom line is that the Office of Faith-Based Initiatives increasingly administers grants in a way that reinforces the political truth: the office exists to accomplish the goals of government, not the goals of Christ’s body, the church.

The Office of Faith-Based Initiatives is actually a temptation to Christians to sell out Christ for money as surely as Judas did. Christ never taught that his disciples should go to the government for money to finance the work of discipleship. Christians who think this office is a good thing point out how much money it has. They say that they cannot get such amounts of money from private charitable contributions. They fail to recognize that they are pretending to themselves that the government collects this money as God’s agent to fund God’s work. They are actually denying that God’s call to them included his gracious provision for the ministry to which he called them. Financing Christ’s kingdom is not the role of government. Financing Christ’s kingdom is the role of Christians who exercise grateful stewardship of their possessions. Read the Bible from cover to cover, and nowhere will you read that God has ordained that his provision for his work will be delivered by the government. The absolute guarantee that government money comes with government rules is part of the reason God does not send Christians to government for financing.

The Office of Faith-Based Initiatives must go.

Closing the Office of Faith-Based Initiatives will free churches from the temptation to accept the government restrictions on their work that accompany government funding of their work. Closing this office will eliminate the temptation to pray to the government rather than pray to God for financial support. Christians who go to the government for money to finance their work are replacing God with government. They are saying that they do not believe that God will provide for the work he has called them to do.

There is plenty of evidence in the daily news that Christians who accept money from the government to do the work God has called them to do will find it very difficult to live their discipleship while holding on to government funding. The expressed views of the US federal government on a variety of social issues makes it clear that the government’s social objectives are not God’s social objectives. The existence of the Office of Faith-Based Initiatives is an ongoing temptation for Christians to believe that God’s ministries can safely accept the restrictions that accompany government grants. To believe this is to believe Satan’s lie to Jesus that he could still be the Christ if he worshiped Satan. Christian ministries must be free of the taint of statism in order to be free to serve God with a whole heart.

The Office of Faith-Based Initiatives must go.