On last week President Obama unveiled his own version of his predecessor's faith based policy which makes federal grants and contracts for social services delivery available to religious groups and churches. Some of the benefits of a Church-Government partnership are non-debatable. First of all, church people are tax-payers too and should have access to the same resources as others that pay taxes. It also, when effectively administered, moves the church from a rhetoric of empowerment to the actual delivery of power when beneficiaries are enabled to experience economic, educational, or social change through the acquiring of affordable housing, jobs, and businesses. Presently many activist churches are addressing neighborhood problems and improving social conditions for the disadvantaged and distributing goods and services as a supplement to those provided by public agencies and private markets.
Despite the fact that the Faith Based Initiative increases capacity of many churches to deliver social services, provides employment opportunities, and two of my distinguished fellow alums, Dr. Otis Moss,Jr. Pastor emeritus, Olivet Institutional Baptist Church, Cleveland, Ohio and Bishop Vashti M. McKenzie, Presiding Bishop, 13th Episcopal District, African Methodist Episcopal Church, Knoxville, Tennesse are a part of the 25-member President's Council on Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships, the intersection of politics and religion is fraught with potential hazards and must be approached with extreme caution.
Some of the blind spots or unexpected obstacles include the following:
1. Separation of Church and State:
African American churches were formed out of a demand for social justice and have served as voices of opposition to unjust policies and politicians. It is impossible to take money from Pharaoh while criticizing him. Will taking government money buy the church's silence and compromise it's message of social justice? Can you critique the government when eating at the government's table?
2. First Amendment Protection:
A potential conflict arises when personnel matters arise as a result of religious beliefs that run counter to the First Amendment protections against discrimination. When churches bring their theology or religious dogma into their hiring or firing decisions occasions where the rights of persons whose lifestyles, behaviors, values or beliefs are different from the church may be violated.
3.Capacity of Staff for Regulation, Compliance, and Monitoring
Government funding carries with it mountains of paperwork, reports, and rules which change frequently and without notice. This exposes the church to possible inadvertant fraud, incarceration, and negative publicity. The time and attention devoted to mountains of paperwork and policies can be distracting causing the church to lose its identity and cloud it's focus.
The social problems to be addressed in early 21st century America are great. A partnership between the faith community and government that seeks to overcome these enormous problems for the common good is a noble thought. Aid to black churches in carrying out this mission is appealing but the cost in terms of the church's prophetic voice and moral leadership could be disastrous in the long run. Proceed with caution!
For which of you, intending to build a tower, sitteth not down first and counteth the cost, whether he have sufficient to finish it? Lest haply, after he has laid the foundation, and is not able to finis it, all that behold it begin to mock him, saying this man began to build, and was not able to finish. Luke 14:28-30.