When disaster strikes, churches--from the conservative Southern Baptist Convention to the liberal United Church of Christ--are among the first to respond. However, as Katrina so painfully revealed, churches and charities--no matter how much they give--can't build levees (though neither, apparently, can the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers).
Many faith-based disaster relief agencies are using 9/11 and Katrina as stark comparisons of how government should--and shouldn't--respond to disasters. A May 2006 Urban League report highlighted the differences: "The state response was strong after September 11, and the nonprofit sector tried to work alongside the government as well as fill in the gaps the government left behind, both short and long term. With Katrina, in contrast, the immediate state response was weak, and the nonprofit sector had neither the organizational structure nor the resources to meet immediate needs."
In disaster relief, efficient, well-organized faith-based organizations work best as an adjunct to a strong, responsive, and accountable state. As of February 2006, the Salvation Army had raised $325 million in disaster relief for the Gulf Coast hurricanes--second only to the American Red Cross, according to the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University. And this doesn't include in-kind donations--such as the hundreds of church work crews that have headed with their hammers to the Gulf Coast.
However, in American churches a divide has opened up between those whose theological and political perspectives advocate for downsizing the role of government and those who promote a strong government, with laws and budget priorities that promote the common good. These ideological differences couldn't be starker than in the Bush administration's treatment of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
"Ideologically opposed to a strong federal role in disaster relief and obsessed with terrorism, the Bush administration let a once-admired agency fall apart," wrote Farhad Manjoo in "Why FEMA Failed."
In the 1990s, this well-respected agency responded to disasters--both natural and …