Encouraging scholarship, strengthening faith identity, and interpreting contemporary issues in Baptist life.

A Response to Ron Sider's
"Evaluating the Faith-
Based Initiative"
by K. Hollyn Hollman
Baptist Joint Committee
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A Response by

K. Hollyn Hollman, General Counsel
Baptist Joint Committee


“Evaluating the Faith-Based Initiative:  Is Charitable Choice Good Public Policy?
By Ronald J. Sider in Theology Today, January 2005, 67: 4, pp. 485-498

Despite the title of the article, Sider gives short shrift to some very important issues raised by opponents of President Bush’s “faith-based initiatives.” Sider spends twice the space arguing in favor of the policy as he does summarizing objections. He includes little consideration of such pitfalls as competition between churches for government funds, religious discrimination in hiring, diminishing the church’s independence and prophetic voice, government regulation of churches and the possible decline in private giving. 

From the beginning of the article, Sider adopts much of the language of the Bush administration in their push for “charitable choice.” Claims that the initiative is about removing “illegitimate restrictions” or “leveling the playing field” echo the politicians, but do little to illuminate the important issues raised in this policy debate. Sider seems to take the architects of charitable choice at their word, and paints opponents as partisan. This framing ignores the considerable questions that have been raised by sincere, religiously motivated critics of charitable choice.

Here is a list of the major problems with Sider’s article and responses to them:

1) Sider gives little attention to the fundamental contradiction in the policy of charitable choice. A large part of the faith-based initiative is the pursuit of “charitable choice,” a particular legislative policy that has an important and fundamental flaw. Charitable choice purports to allow pervasively religious organizations to receive federal funding without altering their religious character and without violating the ban on government funding of religion. The focus on preserving religious character, however, directly competes with the public policy goal of funding only secular social services and not funding religion.

Sider cites the stated goals of the policy as helping churches and other faith-based organizations (FBOs) provide social services, while respecting the FBO’s[1] religious roots and without compromising their religious character and identity.  Sider and other supporters also specifically point to the unique qualities of spiritual healing and conversion as the main benefit for the delivery of services by FBOs. Thus, despite reference to the regulations that forbid direct funding of “sectarian worship, instruction, or proselytization,” the policy implicitly assumes that the government and our tax dollars are supporting a religious experience or conversion to achieve a social service goal.

            2) Sider claims that the promotion of charitable choice is about funding what works. While it is easy for religious individuals to accept that faith can be transforming, that belief is not sufficient as a basis for public policy. It has not been adequately tested. Sider acknowledges this. Even if there were empirical proof in favor of charitable choice, the policy cannot be justified if it violates the constitutional values that are so important to protecting religious liberty. The same ends, however, may be achieved through privately funded efforts. The constitutional protections for religious liberty do not depend on countervailing social outcomes. The First Amendment contains principles that come first. Sider’s argument seems to suggest that if the outcome is desirable, the Constitution does not matter.

            Moreover, the argument that charitable choice simply allows government to fund services that have been proven effective is undercut by the emphasis of some FBOs on healing the whole person. Success for these entities in ministering to needy individuals may not translate neatly into success according to a government audit.

3) Sider’s history section confuses more than it enlightens. Sider correctly points out that the first piece of legislation containing charitable choice, sponsored by then-Sen. John Ashcroft, passed because it was “under the radar screen.”  When a motion was made to strike the offending language, the motion failed after only a few minutes of debate. This history belies any political assumptions about the value of this policy. Since charitable choice has been examined and debated in Congress, its defects have become more widely known. No legislation with charitable choice language that has been subject to debate in Congress has passed. Instead, the faith-based initiative has been forced into policy through the executive branch in various executive orders.

            4) Belief in the transforming power of religion does not trump the Establishment Clause, which is essential to the religious liberty we enjoy.

            Of course, partnerships between FBOs and the government for the benefit of society can work. As Sider acknowledges, religious entities have been involved in the delivery of social services through cooperation with the government for many years. They did so in ways that protect the constitutional separation of church and state. The “barriers” cited by charitable choice proponents were in fact safeguards for the Constitution. While cooperation between government and religious entities is not new, the changes reflected in faith-based proposals and advanced by executive orders are a significant departure from tradition.           

While religion and “a right relationship with God” can transform lives, such conversions should not be funded with tax dollars. Successful programs will be noticed and privately funded without violating the conscience of taxpayers. 

            5) Sider’s concern with “secularization” seems too narrow. The author criticizes how under the old rules of government-sectarian cooperation the granting program had to make judgments of the “degree of religiosity of organizations.” He blames them for “secularization” and fails to see the legal purpose of the distinctions made under the pre-charitable choice structure.

Case law frequently resorted to categories like “secular,” “religiously motivated” and “pervasively sectarian” in judging the propriety of grants. Sider implicitly recognizes the importance of such distinctions when he quotes Stephen Monsma who notes there is “a huge difference between funding a religious congregation in its core rituals and celebrations [which government should never do under our Constitution] and funding a religious group’s social services it is providing to the community.” Yet Sider seems to ignore the importance of categories in providing a constitutional line in this area of public policy. Charitable choice blurs the existing lines. Giving tax dollars directly to churches invites the government’s eyes into houses of worship and fundamentally changes them.

Sider tries to prove too much. He asserts that religiously motivated organizations that provide government social services without religious content “seem to embrace a deistic worldview.” Instead, such entities act out their faith in a way that respects religious liberty and the importance of our Constitution. The article argues that the prior rules, which fund only secular or religiously motivated organizations “make[ ] government programs engines of secularization.” This ignores the uncontroversial fact that our government is secular, and our Constitution protects against funding religion. Taking no tax dollars leaves religious organizations truly independent and free to minister in any way they see fit. Government neutrality does not equal hostility.


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