Washington Post: Voices -- faith-based theocracy frauds

20 Feb 2001

Washington Post
Sunday, February 18, 2001; Page B03


The lines have been drawn in the opinion pages: Some regard President Bush's faith-based proposal as a flagrant overstepping of constitutional provisions regarding church and state; others, who see no conflict with the First Amendment, view it as the most effective means of caring for those in need. Outlook asked men and women who have been involved in service to offer their views:

DERRICK HARKINS, pastor of Nineteenth Street Baptist Church in Northwest Washington:

People have attacked President Bush's initiative on the grounds that it erodes the barrier between church and state. But they haven't given it a chance. I can tell you that the element of faith is a strong motivation for the providers of services. Most of my fellow pastors in the African American community here agree. I can only surmise that those political leaders who are in opposition are a bit out of step with their constituencies.

Nineteenth Street Baptist has a long history of involvement with the community. We're always looking for ways to revitalize existing programs and to launch new ones. Our Counseling Ministry, which we developed to bring mental health counseling to the community as a whole, is fully accredited and professionally staffed. We have a number of projects that we are aching to expand -- ones that don't get much public attention, such as HIV and AIDS prevention and education for geriatrics. That's a hundred-thousand-dollar kind of program, and we're eager to find new sources of funding.

With a congregation that's about 1,200 strong, we're one of the mid-size D.C. churches. Our funding comes from the pew and from both public and private grants. The idea of applying for grants is not rocket science for us. We have a Community Development Corp., with professional grant writers and administrators. We're fortunate in that respect. That's the kind of thing some smaller churches will have to pay attention to: They'll need to develop skills to handle this kind of responsibility.

FRITZ RITSCH, pastor of Bethesda Presbyterian Church:

At 11 a.m. every Saturday, my church's doors open to serve mealsto about 50 homeless people in our neighborhood. Many of the volunteers arechurch members, but the others don't necessarily belong to any religious group -- they come because they want to help.

We have spoken often about using the lunch program as a way to integrate homeless folks into our congregation, but our affiliation with Bethesda Cares, a government-supported nonprofit, limits us. Our hopes have been raised, somewhat, by the Bush administration's new emphasis on faith-based initiatives. Lois Elieff, who oversees our lunch program, told me she thought we should give the new relationship a try, though Sue Kirk, who coordinateswith Bethesda Cares, has real concerns. What strings will be attached to money that comes to us that way? And what happens if government aid dries up with the next administration?

More than this, I am concerned that work that ought to be done by the federal government will devolve onto churches. People often forget that giving aid to the needy is part of our mission -- but it's not all of our mission. I have a congregation to care for and a goal of promoting God's kingdom.

I've always felt that separation of church and state is as good for the church as it is for the state. We don't want our unique message to be watered down by further government dependence.The fact is, though, thatwe can't really run the lunch program without government help. So I'll approach the new initiative -- but with caution.

SCOTT ALEXANDER, senior minister of River Road Unitarian Church in Bethesda:

My congregation is passionately committed to social justice and human service work in the Washington community. We have 15 active task forces that donate thousands of volunteer hours and more than $150,000 annually to providing affordable housing and food to the poor, funding minority college scholarships and offering after-school ministry to D.C. youth.

Nonetheless, most of my congregation and I are extremely wary of President Bush's faith-based initiative. As one of the country'smany minority religions, we are gravely concerned about which religions and faith-based programs would be "approved" for funding, and which would not be. By what theological, moral or programmatic standards are federal officials going to decide whether the prison ministry they fund will berun by evangelical Christians, Black Muslims, the Church of Scientology, Buddhists, Presbyterians, Mormons or Unitarian Universalists? Perhaps the president does not fully grasp how diverse religious beliefs are in these United States, and maybe he's forgotten that more than 50 percent of Americans have no formal religious affiliation at all.

Compassionate congregations like the one I'm so proud to serve will continue to do their part, alongside secular human service agencies, to address the social ills of our nation. But let'snot expand the role federal dollars play in faith-based programs, which need to do their work as free as possible of interference, prejudice or conflict.

MAGGI G. GAINES, executive director of a new national organization designed to support and expand the number of Jews in service:

I know that volunteers make a difference, and that volunteering enhances the meaning of life. I know that the value system supporting service is often rooted in religious tradition. But I'm also a strong believer in that protective wall of separation between church and state. So I have mixed feelings about President Bush's initiative.

I've worked for the last dozen years as executive director of Baltimore Reads, a secular organization that supports adults and children who want to develop better basic skills, particularly in reading. In this work there is a crucial role for well-trained volunteers as well as members of various service programs, including Americorps and VISTA.

The math is simple: More volunteers doing service means more people getting helped. The service needs to be done by people who are motivated to improve the communities in which they live. Now I'm involved in launching a national organization called the Partnership for Service, which will solidify the traditional link between the core Jewish value of service and Jews doing service. For many the commitment to do service comes, whether consciously or unconsciously, from a religious value system.

So I'm conflicted: I am concerned about the church-state ramifications of Bush's initiative and about the definition of faith being too narrow; and I am also concerned that we help people who want to improve their lives.


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