I am an Orthodox Jew, and I give much of my charitable money to
Jewish organizations. I do not, however, want the government to start
putting its welfare energies into "faith-based" organizations, even if
that were to benefit the very charities I support.
Why not? First, because faith-based organizations cannot solve
large-scale, ingrained social problems like the lack of decent education
and health care available to the poor. In any case, religious communities
have priorities other than solving social problems. They tend either to
direct their aid primarily to members of their own flock, or to tie it to
a mission of spreading their churches' teachings.
Second, many religious groups accomplish good social ends while
simultaneously promoting doctrines that are morally unsavory and
Finally, it is inappropriate for aid to the poor to be given merely
out of compassion. The poor deserve not to be poor. The basic means
necessary to secure equality of opportunity--universal health care, high
quality education and the like--is something the poor are owed by justice
rather than charity. They should neither be forced to feel grateful to
their helpers nor should their helpers congratulate themselves on their
wonderful generosity or compassion. The anonymous procedures of state
organizations are the best way to make sure that equality of opportunity
is seen as a right, not a mere gift.
The man President Bush has chosen to run his experiment with this
faith-based approach, John DiIulio Jr., is a thoughtful and careful
political scientist, and he may find a way of making these charities
complement other welfare programs. But he has a difficult task. The idea
could easily become a baleful distraction, adding little to the struggle
against poverty while strengthening intolerant religions and contributing
to the decline of the notion that justice, not charity, gives us reason
to end poverty.
And that, after all, is not just a secular teaching but a deeply
rooted religious one.
Sam Fleischacker is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of Illinois, Chicago.
Copyright 2001 Los Angeles Times