A Matter Of Faith

What Faith-Based Initiatives Can (And Can'T) Do For New Mexico

Christie Chisholm
5 min read
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Faith has never been an easy subject. It's touchy. It's personal. And we can't readily talk about it without someone, somewhere getting offended.

In a country where every year, every month even, our federal government is becoming more and more entrenched in religious dogma, blurring the lines between the separation of church and state and intentionally manipulating the far-right faction to rise up and do its bidding, sometimes it becomes necessary to bring up the oh-so-touchy topic. Specifically, it's necessary to talk about how we respect it without privileging it as an institution, or pushing our own faith on everyone else—a distinction our president seems unable to make.

It's also important for New Mexicans to talk about faith—because just over a month ago Gov. Bill Richardson created a state office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives—news that, when I first heard, nearly blew my socks off. At first, I was irritated. What a blatant attempt to suck up to religious voters before running for the presidency, I thought. Which still isn't necessarily untrue. But, as I have now discovered after some time pondering and researching the subject, I've decided that this new office may not be such a bad thing after all.

Let me begin by giving a little background to those of you who may be unfamiliar with the quagmire that is faith-based initiatives. Established by the Bush administration in 2001 (but actually started in a milder form during the Clinton era with the 1996 Welfare Reform Act), faith-based initiatives are basically a set of laws that try to level the playing field, so to speak, of federal grant-giving for social welfare programs. Historically, these grants were reserved for secular programs, although religiously-affiliated, but not pervasively sectarian, institutions could still receive funding—take Catholic Charities, Lutheran Social Services and the Jewish Federation, for instance, who have received federal grants for years. Faith-based initiatives make it acceptable, or, downright encouraged, for sectarian institutions—like churches, synagogues and mosques—to apply.

In theory, faith-based initiatives aren't such a bad idea. Their goal is to include institutions that have already been in the field of social work for generations in the same general pot for grant eligibility as other social welfare institutions. Not a totally far-fetched notion. And, with regulations in place that outlaw any form of proselytizing or discrimination, at face-value the program seems like a pretty good one.

Problems arise, however, specifically with the fact that many people believe that faith-based initiatives are a total breach of the First Amendment, which states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof. …” It's debatable as to whether or not they really do disregard that law, as some people believe that its definition, hinging on the word “establishment,” really means that we can't declare (or establish) an official American religion, and doesn't have anything to do with making laws in regards to religious institutions.

Regardless of which side you take, there are several other, more practical, problems with faith-based initiatives. Take, for instance, the discouraging reality that although churches and other faith-based institutions have been involved in charity work for years, they still don't perform as well as their non-faith-based counterparts. They're still adjusting. And while it's good for us to want to help them learn and grow, and in the long-run that tactic may actually pay off, in the meantime funding them could take away from already-established, proven programs.

Another rather glaring problem is that faith-based programs' success rates aren't measured by the government (instead, that job has fallen on a handful of academics and private organizations), which means that the government is taking no responsibility for the fact that faith-based programs aren't as effective as their counterparts. Additionally, they've only received approximately 7 percent of the funding that they were promised by the Bush administration since their establishment—which sure isn't helping their cause.

With so many problems with faith-based programs, why, you ask, do I think that the new faith-based office in New Mexico is a good thing? Well, I primarily think it's good because it has nothing to do with making decisions over who gets funding and who doesn't; in fact, its sole purpose is simply to hook programs up with resources, and provide training and guidance. And it's not just for faith-based programs; it's for all of them.

And so while I still don't know if funding faith-based programs will do the country more harm than good, and although I still have qualms over its relationship with the First Amendment, all our local office will do is help New Mexico's social welfare programs try to get more money from the national pot. (Keep in mind that until now, half of the money for social welfare programs went to 10 states that didn't include New Mexico, while the rest was divvied up between international groups, the remaining 40 states and three U.S. territories.)

We have to remember that this whole thing isn't as much about faith as it is about the best way to help people. And, until we figure out how good or bad faith-based programs really are, in the meantime, maybe having this office is the best thing we can do to help all of our people.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the author. E-mail christie@alibi.com.

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