Jesus told his disciples to be “wise as serpents and harmless as doves.”
Serpentine wisdom referred to tough-mindedness, according to Martin Luther King, Jr. The nature of doves related to compassion.
People of faith must be sharp minded and tender hearted, King said. He lamented that too often believers reverse Jesus’ admonition. They are soft minded and hardhearted.
In this age of prosperity, people of faith must soften their hearts without being soft headed.
Serpentine discernment is demanded when we consider the idea of directing government funds to faith-based organizations that provide social services such as substance abuse counseling and mentoring for children of inmates.
During the presidential campaign, both Vice President Al Gore and Governor George W. Bush gave major speeches prioritizing the role of faith-based groups.
Last week, President Bush began to fulfill a campaign promise that is badly flawed on a number of fronts.
First, Bush’s proposal endangers the time-proven wall of separation between church and state.
Distributing federal tax dollars to faith organizations will sap charitable giving within faith communities and neuter the faith community’s prophetic voices needed to challenge government wrong.
Of course, with federal shekels come federal shackles. The state will be required to monitor religious agencies that receive funds to ensure that they do not use government funds to evangelize and indoctrinate the disadvantaged.
Such monitoring will undercut what makes the most successful faith-based ministries work–their ability to teach religious values and to change hearts.
Second, in its present form Bush’s program ensures discrimination.
For example, if Bob Jones University receives federal funds for a substance abuse program, will it hire a Jewish counselor or a Catholic administrator? Based on its record, the answer is no.
When Bush’s staff considers grant proposals from religious agencies, they will inevitably pick one religion over another. Will a Mormon-based program in Nashville receive the same consideration as a Baptist one? Will the government fund a Muslim-sponsored effort in Utah, when it could support a Mormon program?
Unless human nature has changed miraculously, discrimination will occur. The result will be unhealthy competition and conflict within faith communities.
Third, Bush builds a program on the sandy soil that faith groups are really committed to providing long-term social services, and given enough federal money they will solve social ills.
The reality is that many churches are marginally committed to meeting social needs, if church budgets reflect genuine priorities.
My church, Woodmont Baptist Church, is recognized nationally for its generous support of overseas missions. Sunday School classes have built homes with low-income families, English-speaking courses are offered and members minister to inmates. But our total budget provides only a slight percentage to redress entrenched social problems.
What percentage of your church, synagogue or mosque budget goes to meet chronic social needs? Furthermore, what percentage of total revenue goes for uncompensated care at the Nashville hospitals with religious names?
Simply put, the shaky commitment to meet social ills within the religious community is no firm foundation upon which to spend billions of dollars annually to solve problems.
Fourth, Bush’s plan is based on the faulty assumption that faith-based groups can provide social services better than non-religious agencies. There is little empirical evidence that supports this belief.
In fact, significant evidence exists that faith organizations lag behind non-religious ones. Many churches were late to support civil rights, slow to address AIDS and unhurried in making their facilities handicapped accessible. Evidence does exist that a few religious organizations have been prone to fraud and abuse, including the state-supported Roloff Homes in Texas.
Bush deserves credit for calling for a more compassionate and positive society. Early in his campaign, he said Americans “respond to someone who appeals to our better angels, not our dark impulses.”
Indeed, we must listen to our better angels and practice serpentine discernment where they fear to tread. And surely the angels are cautious about reinventing government through religion.
Robert M. Parham is BCE’s executive director.