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Os Guinness on Faith Based Initiatives

The Case for Civility: And Why Our Future Depends On It (HarperCollins: 2008), pp. 51-3.

Another example of a flawed understanding of the separation of church and state is George W. Bush’s much-trumpeted but bungled policy of providing government money for what he calls “faith-based initiatives.” Predictably, this initiative was surrounded by controversy from the start and did not live up to its supporters’ hopes. At its best, it was a well-intentioned compliment to the dynamism of faith-based entrepreneurialism in the nineteenth century. The tribute was sincere and the intention laudable — to encourage the voluntarism and dynamic energy that are now recognized as the lifeblood of a healthy civil society, and to foster the little platoons and mediating institutions that are its cells. ¶ But regardless of its political and legal problems, such as the accusations of cronyism and political manipulation, the project was self-defeating as a concept because the close relationship between government and faith-based groups almost inevitably leads, first, to a growing dependency of the faith-based organization on the government, and, eventually, to the effective secularization of the faith-based group. In the words of David Kuo, President George W. Bush’s special assistant for faith-based initiatives, “Between Catholic Charities and Lutheran Social Services alone, for example, more than $1.5 billion went to faith-based groups every year. But their activity had come at a spiritual cost. They were, as organizations, largely secular.”

Early-nineteenth-century entrepreneurialism erupted precisely because faith was released from all governmental dependence; and today’s entrepreneurialism will slowly wither as dependency on the government grows again. In other words, the core problem of the president’s faith-based policy is not legal and constitutional but theological and spiritual. In the words of the nineteenth-century Catholic writer Félicité de Lamennais, “It was not with a cheque drawn on Caesar’s bank that Jesus sent his apostles out into the world.”

True faith-based initiatives owe nothing to the government except its protection of their freedom to operate. They are freely chosen, voluntary activities that depend solely on their own believers and resources. As such they are never stronger than the strength of their own beliefs, the generosity of their own people, and the depth of their own resources and commitments — all without a single cent from the government’s tempting purse or a triplicate form from the deadening hand of its bureaucracy.