A nerve-wracking initiative
March 2 2001 by Tony W. Cartledge , BR Editor

A nerve-wracking initiative | Friday, March 2, 2001

Friday, March 2, 2001

A nerve-wracking initiative

By Tony W. Cartledge BR Editor I am normally a fairly calm person. When I sit down to donate blood, for example, the nurse often takes my blood pressure twice because it is so low. A natural proclivity to low blood pressure is a helpful asset in my job, and I'm thankful for it - especially when I fire up the e-mail program every morning. That's why I've found it hard to get excited about reading all the news articles, opinions and analyses of President Bush's call for faith-based organizations to receive government funds for certain social aspects of their ministries. They make me nervous.

The thought of tax money supporting churches in any way just sets my psyche on edge. I suppose that there are ways in which churches have gained incidental benefits from government spending through better roads, publicly financed city services and the like - but the mental image of money flowing directly from taxpayers' pockets to government coffers to church programs puts a buzz in my brain.

Many Christian organizations, including some evangelicals, have welcomed the president's initiatives. Some see the program as a way for churches to get more involved in government and to gain more influence. That thought is scary enough, but I suspect the influence will flow in the opposite direction.

Other Christians are applauding the possibility of gaining government funds for a simple reason: they spend their lives on the front lines of social service and know the need. Every day they look into the eyes of more people than they can feed or shelter. Moved by compassion for the hungry and hurting, they welcome any source of additional funds, confident that secular funds can be turned to sacred purpose without compromise.

I resonate with that ideal, but it still makes me nervous.

I wonder how many people who now give generously to social ministry programs (to their own benefit, as well as others) will feel less compelled to contribute if they know the ministries also have access to Uncle Sam's deep pockets.

I wonder if it is really possible to keep a line between church and state when the state is financing even one aspect of the church's ministry.

I wonder if churches that put a lot of their energy into social ministry may find themselves becoming increasingly dependent on government funding, losing motivation to tithe and support Christian social ministries in other ways.

I wonder if a church can truly separate food for the belly from food for the soul.

I wonder if the government can truly separate contributions from control.

I wonder if churches in the same town will wind up competing with each other for the biggest government grants.

I wonder how many charlatans will rise up to begin new "ministries" for the express purpose of skimming funds for personal gain.

I wonder how the government can guard against the crooks without intruding on the conscientious.

I wonder how many fringe faith groups and far-out cults will demand a piece of the social ministry pie, and whether the government can legitimately give to one and not the other.

I wonder if we really want the government to be in charge of determining what constitutes a legitimate religion or ministry.

I wonder if churches or religious groups can speak prophetically and ask for money with the same tongue.

I have to believe that President Bush's heart is in the right place. And I agree that faith-based programs are often more effective than other groups in meeting the physical and social needs of the poor, the addicted, the troubled.

I believe this is true precisely because those programs are led by people of faith who are motivated by a clear biblical mandate to lift up the fallen, to heal the hurting, to feed the hungry, to visit the prisoners, to shelter the homeless. That same biblical grounding calls for Christians to minister to spiritual as well as physical and social needs.

Living out our calling to minister in this way is a spiritual discipline that provides spiritual blessings for those who go and for those who give. When church members and concerned Christians support such ministries, they can do their work in unfettered fashion. When taxpayer dollars foot the bill, it is hard to imagine that there will be no strings attached.

Jesus acknowledged the need for government and the need for taxes - but he also taught his followers to keep a healthy distance between the things of Caesar and the things of God. Reflecting on that teaching does me more good than any nerve pill.

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3/2/2001 12:00:00 AM by Tony W. Cartledge , BR Editor | with 0 comments
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