On the Church and Society
October 3, 2005
Should taxpayers subsidize churches and other religious groups for charitable aid supplied in response to natural disasters?
The Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, sparked this debate with the announcement late last month that religious organizations would be eligible for payments from the government for certain relief operations tied to hurricanes Katrina and Rita. In addition, the Department of Housing and Urban Development reportedly will offer reimbursements for providing shelter to storm victims.
Reactions to this use of taxpayer dollars might be seen as typical. Various liberal groups have complained about violating the separation of church and state. For example, Ellen Johnson, president of the American Atheists, declared: "This is the quintessential example of 'establishing religion' in America, which is prohibited by our Constitution."
In reality, however, there is nothing unconstitutional about such payments. After all, the U.S. Constitution declares: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." Contrary to Johnson's assertion, there is no state religion being set up here.
Meanwhile, various conservatives have noted that religious organizations responded with far greater effectiveness than the government. Churches did a better job and took on enormous responsibilities, the argument goes, so why not give them a helping hand? Various news reports have noted Republican members of Congress pushing for these subsidies.
But this issue actually does not split on neat-and-tidy, conservative-vs.-liberal, religious-vs.-atheist lines. A strong case can be made against such subsidies from conservative or religious points of view. Indeed, this ranks as a classic example of government throwing money around without fully considering or understanding the consequences.
For example, a bad precedent is being set. Every imaginable disaster from this point forward will raise the possibility of taxpayer dollars being used to reimburse religious groups. For good measure, while reimbursements are to be limited to certain undertakings this time, history shows that taxpayer subsidies usually expand.
FEMA spokesman Butch Kinerney, as quoted by the Religion News Service, set an expansive tone: "We want to make sure that every group, religious or nonreligious, which opens its doors and opens its arms to shelter evacuees from this storm are able to get compensated for their generosity."
These kinds of subsidies also raise serious questions about charitable giving in the future. How many people, who have given generously to their churches in support of storm victims, will have second thoughts opening their checkbooks next time around, assuming that the government will take care of things?
The welfare state already has crowded out a great deal of private charity in so many areas, with often negative consequences. For example, private charities have greater incentives to get those in need back on their feet, while government incentives often point to expanding welfare budgets and bureaucracies linked to a permanent underclass.
Government dollars also come, eventually, with strings attached, such as limitations on what can and cannot be done. This has the very real potential of reducing the effectiveness and undermining the missions of religious efforts. In addition, government subsidies have the disturbing effect of fostering dependency, sloth and waste.
So, the very effectiveness used to justify reimbursing religious groups for their aid efforts quite likely would be undermined by such payments.
Finally, there is a fundamental moral question about taking taxpayer money for charitable work. Rev. Robert E. Reccord, president of the Southern Baptist Convention's North American Mission Board, raised this point. He told The Washington Post: "Volunteer labor is just that: voluntary. We would never ask the government to pay for it."
In fact, there is something deeply troubling about individuals volunteering time and treasure as guided by their faith, only to have that generosity sullied by their churches turning to the taxpayers for handouts. Charity grows out of faith and compassion, not from the government's power to tax.
Raymond J. Keating, also a columnist with Newsday, can be reached at ChurchandSociety@aol.com.
Copyright © Raymond J. Keating