The U.S. House of Representatives voted recently to allow religious social-service providers that receive federal money to discriminate in hiring on the basis of religion. At issue, of course, is current federal law that prohibits any discrimination in hiring. But when faith groups get into the mix, things get a little lumpy.
A faith-based service is normally tied to some sort of theology. Christians, for instance, minister in Jesus’ name and believe that God is with them in the help they offer. It’s not just food they provide, but also a Christian witness. Consequently, many Christian service providers want to hire only Christians to do Christian ministry.
The House’s decision to allow this sort of discriminatory hiring creates a teachable moment for us to rethink the whole idea of giving tax dollars to faith groups.
The turn toward faith-based social-service providers grows out of two assumptions.
The first is that government should provide social services. With the advent of Roosevelt’s New Deal, with its massive public works program and the creation of Social Security, political and economic conservatives have bemoaned the intrusive arm of big government. President Johnson’s vision of the Great Society and the war on poverty, only added fuel to their fire. For over 50 years, it has been the goal of these conservatives to “get government off our backs.”
But these days we have compassionate conservatives, and that is where we encounter the second assumption. Government should not be involved in social services, the conservatives tell us, but faith communities should be. People of faith are compassionate and generous. The scriptures of many faith groups encourage acts of charity and kindness. Besides all that, God is on their side. Why rely on the paltry resources of the federal government to tackle social ills when faith groups have access to the Almighty?
The problem with that idea, as many people of faith will attest, is that God has a stubborn way of doing what God wants. Simply because we show up with Bible in hand does not mean miracles will soon follow. Studies have shown that faith groups are no more effective in dealing with the effects of social problems than any other group. In fact, in some cases faith groups did not do as well as non-faith based services.
The bottom line here is that federally funded faith-based initiatives are an unnecessary blurring of the line between church and state. And the recent House action only adds to this problem. Making tax dollars available to faith groups, who are then free to hire who they want, is fertile soil for social and religious conflict.
Just imagine the nightmare scenario where someone is denied access to military service because they are a Mormon or a Muslim. Or keeping someone out of the U.S. Postal Service because they are Druid or a Hindu.
Giving tax dollars to faith groups to do social work is not a good idea. But if we insist on shifting social services to faith-based providers it becomes extremely important to remember that the government belongs to all of us, not just the party with the most votes.
It may be possible for faith and government to work side by side, share the load and pool resources. But the folks who draw a paycheck gleaned from tax dollars must represent the whole of America. Faith groups can hire who they want, but jobs paid for with tax dollars should be open for all Americans to apply.
James L. Evans is pastor of Auburn First Baptist Church in Auburn, Ala.