Another Good Question About Faith-Based Initiatives

By way of a link from Pam's House Blend to this post, I came across a really good question about funding faith-based initiatives (bold original):

Senator Obama, if a religious institution proselytizes with one hand, and receives federal money with the other hand, how can you seriously posit that institution is not "using taxpayer funds to proselytize" ?

Money is money, and taxpayer funds are funds that religious institutions would not have otherwise. Whether they rob Peter to pay Paul and use funds they would not otherwise have to do proselytizing they would not have had the money to do otherwise, does that matter? You're still giving money to people from the taxpayers.

On the same plane, we have Senator Obama assuring us that no federal money will be used to fund hiring-and-firing discrimination. In other words, programs that have taxpayer funding may not discriminate. But, how is this to be remotely true, if it is a bucketing issue?

In other words, say I am a religious organization and have $4000 (we'll keep the amounts here small). Currently, I use all $4000 to feed the needy. And within that program, I refuse to hire homosexuals.

Now the government gives me $4000 with the stipulation that I may not discriminate in that program.

So I start another program and take the original $4000 (that I no longer have to use to fund program A) to start program B, which continues to discriminate on sexual orientation and religion. PLUS I add another $1000 to Program B and cut Program A to using only $3000 of the federal funding.

This is not the federal government using taxpayer money to discriminate? How is that more than a fig leaf?

While the question is addressed to Obama, given the widespread support for faith-based programs, it's a fair question. It also gives me an excuse to relate two faith-based related anecdotes. Back when I worked at a non-profit, we were part of a consortium competing for USAID funding. Given the political climate at the time, having religion-associated* organizations was seen as a good way to increase the likelihood of funding (sadly, it didn't work). Some of the religion-associated organizations had significant track records, but a couple of the groups didn't. One group (and the name escapes me or has been repressed) figured out a way to use spare military transport to ship medical supplies (one of the few benefits of having wordwide imperial garrisons--the U.S. military delivers almost everywhere). Nothing wrong with this--beating swords into plowshares and all of that.

Except that was only part of what they did. The other part of their activities was absolutely demonic--a full-throttled assault on the First Amendment to the point where I think James Dobson might blush. Needless to say, I was thrilled that these fuckers might get inflated overheads that would be used to turn the U.S. into a state based on Christian belief--and that's not hyperbole on my part.

The second anecdote is even worse. A colleague went to a meeting designed to aid new applicants navigate the USAID application process. As far as he could tell, he was the only representative from an organization that wasn't religious out of about 200 groups. At a lunch break, he wound up talking to a small group of people, one of whom--his group was supposed to be involved in food delivery--exclaimed that he was so excited because now his group could stop all of the abortions in Africa (which he also referred to as "saving the babies"). Several others thought that was wonderful. Because what many African countries, where pregnancy can be a death sentence, really need are more unwanted pregnancies.

I simply do not trust many of the religion-associated organizations to do the right thing--with good reason.

*Given the pessimism that many 'faiths' have about the human condition (e.g., original sin), faith isn't the word I would use. Snark aside, 'faith-based' is the way Liars for Jesus make their sectarian dogma sound as if it is widely accepted.

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Has anybody heard of fund accounting? If you work with restricted funds (the norm in research), it's the accounting method you use.

By bob koepp (not verified) on 08 Jul 2008 #permalink

This is a bad argument. You could make the same point using the tax breaks that all faith based organizations get and have always got. This is also support by that criteria. If so then the argument falls because we already do that and it is acceptable to most.

To me this is a non-starter as any kind of issue. The real issue is how one will measure effectiveness. If that is ok, than I don't care what kind of organization is doing things, and if it is bad, then I really don't care either because the money will end up wasted anyways. So I think the real focus should be on effectiveness measures, but they aren't issue-genic and no-one seems to want to talk about them.

If the gov't gives you $4000 to feed the needy, with the stipulation that none of that money may go to a program that discriminates against homosexuals, and you divert $1000 of that money to a program that discriminates against homosexuals, isn't that fraud?

That seems like a pretty poor argument against the idea of letting faith-based groups administer public money for charitable purposes. It's more of an argument against a gov't that would let things like that slide. As bob koepp notes, there are ways to ensure that target funds are spent appropriately.

Personnally, if the gov't is going to fund non-gov't groups for charitable purposes, I have no problem with some or even most of those funds going to faith-based groups. (In fact, it would be just as wrong to exclude faith-based groups as is to favor them.)

What does matter to me is that the funding process should be fair, faith-based groups shouldn't get any preferential treatment, all groups should be required to use the funds only for approved purposes, and there should be appropriate audits to ensure the rules are followed.

Also, the agency that oversees all this should NOT be called the Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. The gov't shouldn't be funding faith-based initiatives, it should be funding charitable initiatives (some of which may be administered by faith-based organizations).

This sort of behavior has occurred on a much larger scale for many years when Israel was building territories on occupied Palestinian lands. The US government gave Israel aid and loan guarantees with the stipulation that none of the money would be used for their new settlements. This, of course, then freed up large amounts of strictly Israeli funds for roads and housing in the occupied territories. And everybody's conscience is clear. The same thing occurs in many other shady circumstances with foreign aid.

By natural cynic (not verified) on 08 Jul 2008 #permalink

If the government gives grant money to researchers on a campus, does that free up more money to support the athletic programs? Partially yes, but mostly no.

The basic assumption in all these posts about the faith-based grants is that faith-based organizations have a set annual budget and the only thing that changes is whether the money comes from the government or private donors. Just like universities, if more money comes from new sources, programs expand. If a church runs a food bank on donor dollars and it gets a government grant, it can feed more people. While audits need to make sure that grant money is being used for expanded programming and not just shuffling income sources, I see no reasons religious organizations can't apply for federal grants.
I don't know enough about the granting system to understand the benefits of one pot where secular and religious organizations both compete vs. two separate funds, but anyone who has a competitive proposal that is within the law should be allowed to apply and receive grant money.

If a faith-based programme is feeding the needy with one hand and discriminating against the LGBT community with the other, how likely is it that LGBT needy people are going to feel comfortable having their needs met within that faith-based programme? The discrimination is sometimes even a bit more subtle than people may realize. And its not as though LGBT people aren't FULLY AWARE of the bigoted practices of these religious groups. Frankly, as a feminist, I wouldn't take a meal from an anti-choice religious group unless it was my last one.