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Faith-based director challenges leaders’ concerns; Land responds

WASHINGTON (BP)–The head of President Bush’s new faith-based initiatives office responded to concerns voiced by conservative Christian leaders about the program by challenging some evangelicals’ commitment to social ministry.

In addition, John DiIulio acknowledged social-service ministries that are “all about urging each beneficiary to accept Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior” and are unable to separate government funds from religious activities will be eligible only for individual vouchers. DiIulio, director of the White House Office of Faith-based and Community Initiatives, made his comments in a March 7 speech at the annual meeting of the National Association of Evangelicals.

DiIulio’s comments included a response to concerns expressed recently by conservative evangelical leaders about a portion of the program. Although DiIulio did not name them, Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s ethics agency; Baptist pastor and Moral Majority founder Jerry Falwell, and Christian Coalition founder Pat Robertson have voiced reservations, including fears the program could lead to government interference that would harm churches’ spiritual vitality and freedom.

In his speech, DiIulio said such concerns are understandable and those who hold them “ought simply to opt out,” according to a copy of the speech provided by the White House.

“It’s fine to fret about ‘hijacked faith,’ but to many brothers and sisters who are desperately ministering to the needs of those who the rest of us in this prosperous society have left behind, such frets would persuade more and rankle less if they were backed by real human and financial help,” DiIulio said.

There are “many slippery slopes in a faith life, like the one-way slopes to the suburbs and away from out-of-sight, out-of-mind human suffering and unmet social needs,” he said.

“In particular, compared to predominantly ex-urban, white evangelical churches, urban African-American and Latino faith communities have benevolent traditions and histories that make them generally more dedicated to community-serving missions and generally more confident about engaging public and secular partners in achieving those missions without enervating their spiritual identities or religious characters,” DiIulio said. “With all due respect, and in all good fellowship, predominantly white, ex-urban evangelical and national parachurch leaders should be careful not to presume to speak for any persons other than themselves and their own churches.”

Land, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, said DiIulio should be “careful and cautious about caricaturing and stereotyping evangelicals. We’re not all suburban and ex-urban in either our location or our ministry orientation.

“With all due respect,” Land said, “his criticism of his critics would persuade more and rankle us a little less if he knew more about us. For instance, he is evidently unaware that the Southern Baptist Convention runs the second-largest disaster relief program in America behind the Red Cross and we contribute millions of dollars annually to hunger relief both at home and abroad and we are planting new churches in urban areas every day of the week all across the nation. This is not to mention the tens of thousands of community outreach programs conducted by local churches and local associations and state conventions.”

Land also cited the North American Mission Board’s World Changers program, which rehabilitates houses across the country, and the Woman’s Missionary Union’s Christian Women’s Job Corps job-training program that helps many enter the workforce. In addition, NAMB helps underwrite almost 90 inner-city ministry centers.

He added, “We are not Johnny-come-latelys to an understanding that government is most often not a friend of religion. Baptists have a 300-year history of believing that the state should not fund religion and the state should not interfere with the church’s right to exercise its religious beliefs as it feels led to do without government interference.

“One can disagree about whether or not government is a benign influence in relation to churches and still be committed to being the salt and the light that our Savior commanded us to be,” Land said. “We believe we know what Baptists have believed and do believe on this issue.”

Bush’s plan, announced in late January, is designed to encourage giving to nonprofit organizations that provide social services, as well as enable faith-based and other charities to receive federal funds in their work. He not only established a White House office but centers in five federal departments to remove barriers to religious and other organizations working with government to help the needy. He also has proposed allowing taxpayers who do not itemize to deduct their charitable gifts.

While Land has made clear his reservations about the plan since the president announced it, the ERLC head said he believes, “with the appropriate safeguards that I’ve outlined, that this program can pass constitutional muster, but I don’t believe it can pass Baptist muster.”

Land’s safeguards consist of:

— There must always be a viable secular alternative.

— No religious group should be restricted or discriminated against in the distribution of funds.

— All government aid must go for the non-faith-based phases of the program; the ministry should fund the religious aspects, including instruction and materials.

— Religious activity must be voluntary for recipients of services provided by a faith-based entity.

— “Voucherize” the intended beneficiaries of the funds, thereby leaving with them the decision of whether to use a faith-based agency and which one.

He also recommended churches that choose to participate should establish a separate charity to operate the ministry.

In a March 7 column for Beliefnet.com, a website dedicated to religious issues, Land said he supports “constitutionally safeguarded, faith-based initiatives” with this warning: “Partnering with the government in this way will increase your exposure to government intervention in your ministries. Is working with the government to obey our biblical mandate to help the poor, the hungry and the hurting worth that exposure?

“That is a question each church, synagogue, temple and mosque must decide for itself. As for me and my house, I would not touch the money with the proverbial 10-foot pole,” Land said.

In explaining the concerns of conservative Christians, Land wrote that their worry about government oversight of “how churches spread their message” combined with “the knowledge that Bush will not always be president and that one of his successors may have a far less favorable posture toward faith-based groups causes many religious Americans grave reservations.”

Land praised Bush’s plan to allow nonitemizers to deduct for charitable donations, calling it a “potentially revolutionary step” and saying it has none of the controversial aspects of the faith-based initiative.

Earlier, in a column for USA Today, Robertson expressed concerns not only about restrictions on churches’ religious liberty but about some potential recipients of government funds. He cited Hare Krishnas, the Church of Scientology and the Unification Church.

As a solution to the latter concern, Robertson proposed a screening process by the White House of faith-based organizations, with those qualifying listed in a government registry. They would be eligible to receive private gifts for specific projects. The government would grant a tax credit, not direct funding.

In his Beliefnet column, Land said of Robertson’s proposal, “I suspect many religious people join me in finding that to be intolerable.”

Falwell, pastor of Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg, Va., said in an interview with Beliefnet he supports Bush’s plan but he doubted his ministries would apply for such funds. His “problem is where it might go under [Bush’s] successors,” Falwell said. He also expressed concerns about the funding of cults and other religious groups.