Touting the success of his faith-based initiative, President Bush reported last week that faith-based charities received more than $2 billion from the federal government in 2005. But some groups are finding the money to be a mixed blessing.
Case in point: The Silver Ring Thing. The American Civil Liberties Union recently announced a settlement of a suit against the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services for funding the religiously based abstinence education program.
Under the terms of the agreement, the HHS suspends all current financial support for The Silver Ring Thing (SRT) and will not grant any future federal dollars unless the group adequately separates religious and secular components of its programming. This can be done by following a newly created set of “required safeguards” that make sure federal funds are not used for religious purposes.
The Silver Ring Thing had been awarded more than $1 million in federal grants during the last three years, and so this leaves a rather large hole in the group's funding. Indeed in 2003, more than half of SRT's revenue came from government grants.
So, it is natural to see the settlement of the suit, originally brought by the ACLU in May 2005, as a loss for The Silver Ring Thing. But such a perspective is short-sighted. It is becoming clearer every day that the promise of President Bush's Faith-Based Initiative is in danger of faltering, and SRT now is presented with the opportunity and the challenge to wean itself off of government support.
Funding from the government always comes with strings attached, in the form of red tape and regulations, and even the occasional bureaucratic meddling. Once a religious non-profit gets government funding, the tendency is to become dependent on that money. The danger is, then, in becoming beholden to the government's interests instead of the guiding mission of the organization.
The high percentage of government funds that has made up the SRT's budget will surely be a temptation for the group to acquiesce to the HHS regulations and attempt to rigorously separate the faith element out of the program. But this is a temptation that The Silver Ring Thing can and must resist.
The Silver Ring Thing has been known for integrating the Gospel of Jesus Christ into its message of sexual purity, and for this it deserves praise. In last month's State of the Union address, President Bush noted that “the number of children born to teenage mothers has been falling for a dozen years in a row,” and this is certainly due in no small part to the dedicated efforts of groups like SRT.
SRT hands out Bibles at its rallies, is explicitly guided by Scripture in its youth program, and states that its mission consists in “offering a personal relationship with Jesus Christ as the best way to live a sexually pure life.” This is only natural, as the group is evangelistic; the message of abstinence and biblical purity is part and parcel of the Christian Gospel.
As such, the premise of the Faith-Based Initiative itself is suspect, as it assumes a dichotomy between faith and works that is unnatural and poisonous to the Christian religion. The Great Commission given by Jesus to the Church is to proclaim the message of salvation to the world, and the humanitarian work that Christian groups do must always be oriented to that ultimate goal. Otherwise, the organization risks losing its distinctive foundation.
Richard Baxter, a seventeenth-century Puritan Divine once wrote, “Do as much good as you are able to men's bodies in order to the greater good of souls. If nature be not supported, men are not capable of other good.” This is the basis for Christian relief and social work. The ultimate goal is the comprehensive salvation and reconciliation of the human person, body and soul.
Some from within the Church will no doubt complain and worry that the ACLU victory will further secularize our country. This may be superficially true, but The Silver Ring Thing has the opportunity to resist a far more damaging form of secularization: the kind that separates Christian faith from works.
And what is the alternative? Many of these same Christians would no doubt be uncomfortable with government funds going to groups that hand out Korans or the Book of Mormon at their rallies. The responsibility now rightly falls to concerned Christians to pool their considerable resources and fill SRT's funding gap.
The temporary setback of the loss of government funding has the potential to be a long-term opportunity for The Silver Ring Thing. By resisting the temptation of the government's “forbidden fruit” and meeting its funding goals through private religious endeavors, The Silver Ring Thing can be accountable to God rather than Caesar. And that's the way it should be.