Weighed and Found Wanting: Finding the Proper Balance between Faith-Based Organizations and Government

By Kem, Jack | Global Virtue Ethics Review, April 2003 | Go to article overview
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Weighed and Found Wanting: Finding the Proper Balance between Faith-Based Organizations and Government

Kem, Jack, Global Virtue Ethics Review


President Bush's new Faith-Based Initiative has created a great deal of interest throughout the United States. Many see the need for partnering with faith-based organizations as a natural use of existing stable organizations to provide much-needed social programs throughout the country. Others see this initiative as a dangerous precedent that crosses a distinct line between church and state.

At the core of the debate for the Faith-Based Initiative are several questions. How can a faith-based organization provide services and ignore its very basis for being? If an organization--a church or group based on values and faith--provides social services under any circumstances, is it possible, or even desirable for that organization to be "neutral" in terms of values and faith? Can a strong basis in faith be compatible with government service--either by an organization or by an individual?

To gain some insight into these issues, vignettes in the life of Daniel in Babylon provide insight into how faith-based organizations (and faith-based individuals in public service) can draw on the strength of their values to provide for the public good--while respecting the rights of others to weigh and determine their own beliefs. The danger today exists that this fine line may be crossed in two ways: 1) when government chooses one faith-based organization over another purely because of its faith rather than its capacity and ability to deliver services (in violation of the establishment clause of the United States Constitution); and 2) when the faith-based organization engages in proselytization as a quid pro quo for the services it provides.


Growing up in Kentucky, it was always interesting to see the occasional votes that took place for legalizing alcohol for sale within each of the counties. Most of the counties in Kentucky are "dry," which means they cannot sell alcohol within the county boundaries. In fact, this is true in many of the counties where Kentucky bourbon is produced. When there are enough signatures on a petition to bring the issue to a ballot to change a county to "wet," the politicking begins. Sides are quickly taken to support or defend the initiative, and most times, the issue is defeated--and counties remain "dry."

A common understanding is the issue is defeated by a coalition of two groups, who make the strangest "bedfellows" in Kentucky politics. The two groups of the bootleggers and the fundamental preachers push hard to get the issue defeated. Bootleggers have no desire to lose their clientele--they have a good thing going, and they do not want to lose their business to legal liquor outlets. Fundamental preachers decry the erosion of morals in the community that the evils of alcohol bring. Both groups have their own reasons for defeating the issue, but they share a desire for the same end-state--protecting their turf and retaining a status quo of no legalized alcohol. Caught in the middle are the legal, moderate drinkers who simply drive to the next county to get their six-pack--and the small retail business owners who lose profits to the big city retailers.

President Bush's Faith-Based Initiative appears to have some of the same characteristics of a "wet-dry" ballot issue. It appears the fundamentalists are in the middle of this issue as well. Any government intrusion or control is perceived in terms of an erosion of autonomy for the institution of the church. Worse yet, "undesirable" denominations or faith-groups may receive government monies and legitimacy, enabling these groups to further their beliefs and gain converts. For the fundamentalist groups, it is best to have the government stay completely out of the business of the church--a clean and total separation of church and state is the only answer. On the other side of the issue are those who believe religion has no place in society. The concept of using organizations based on faith conjures up images of proselytizing and evangelizing innocent people in need of social services.

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Weighed and Found Wanting: Finding the Proper Balance between Faith-Based Organizations and Government


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