Al Gore thinks well of faith-based programs

Published 12:00 am Monday, September 18, 2000

One of the more logical and appealing campaign promises Al Gore has begun to make is government support of faith-based programs in welfare reform.

Monday, September 18, 2000

One of the more logical and appealing campaign promises Al Gore has begun to make is government support of faith-based programs in welfare reform. For governments to give disinterested secular assistance to faith-based humanitarian and charitable programs is not only economically smart and operationally convenient, but is one of the most productive things any government can do to get honest compassion and actual help to people in need.

Email newsletter signup

One of the greater attractions of the concept is the very nature of such programs. Faith-based initiatives are local volunteers who help people they know to be in genuine need as over against government bureaucracies staffed by careerists more interested in maintaining the bureau and their jobs than actually helping people.

Kingdoms remain kingdoms for a very short time. Then they either become swallowed by an empire or themselves become an empire and swallow other kingdoms. So it is with private sector corporations and public sector bureaucracies. A government sponsored program does not stay itself for long: it either becomes absorbed by something more politically powerful or it scoops up politically weak programs in order to gain political power. In the former situation, politics destroys the program. In the latter, the mission becomes political.

Most government programs that have been intended to help needy people actually did so for a while. As one senior federal official put it to me, "We do good for a fleeting moment and then pass into hours of worthlessness." They get a good thing going, and this attracts careerists of lesser motivation and with different goals, and these fatally compromise the good thing and it becomes a rigid, soulless bureaucracy. Worse, it corrupts sincere and earnest professionals into careerists whose interest it is to maintain the bureau and keep their jobs secure.

This is not to say faith-based groups are safe from such corruption of purpose and goal or that government should naively turn over funds to any such group that requests them. After all, they suffer the same major liability as do government bureaus, i.e., they depend upon imperfect and corruptible human beings. If this should be doubted, it would be worth reading Frank McCort’s autobiographical Angelia’s Ashes. With private initiatives, going astray and actual corruption are always possible; with government agencies, they are inevitable.

Faith-based groups are almost infinitely more flexible than bureaucracies, which usually quantify everything to be legally protected and conveniently administered. The former can recognize exceptions to the rule and adjust the rule to the exceptions. The latter demand that people and their needs fit neatly into predetermined categories or they hear: "Sorry, we can’t help you."

No better example of a religious group selflessly serving the public in a socially responsible manner can be found than the Salvation Army. This is true nationally, and it is certainly true in the Austin area.

Governments must and can remain disinterested in the moral values and religious goals of faith-based programs, because theirs are human values and welfare goals of the people helped. People who, after all, are voting citizens for whose welfare governments were formed. Human compassion is most effectively expressed and productive help most efficiently delivered by faith-based humanitarian and charitable programs. Not only may governments use them, they can. Not only can they, it must be so.

Wallace Alcorn’s column appears Mondays