Keeping FEMA Out Of Church

Rev. Dr. C. Welton Gaddy

September 28, 2005

The Rev. Dr. C. Welton Gaddy is the president of The Interfaith Alliance , the national non-partisan advocacy voice of the interfaith movement.

Compounding the federal government’s stumbling and tragically inadequate response to Hurricane Katrina, now FEMA has announced that it will reimburse churches and other religious organizations for their charity work and expenses.

This ill-advised, unconstitutional plan raises a number of immediate concerns. These include the separation of religion and government, political expedienc and accountability. Then there's the possible specter of the government inspecting the financial records of houses of worship to determine which ones will receive taxpayer dollars, how much the reimbursements will be and how those funds can be spent.

Now more than ever, government needs to do its job and let the religious community do our job, without confusing the two.

Many politicians—even those who use a lot of religious language—evidently still do not understand religion.  Religious people and our institutions do not need government officials calling us to service in the midst of tragedy, and we do not need government money financing our ministries.

As the pastor of a church in Monroe, La., I have been privileged to work alongside members of my congregation and others from our community in a variety of relief efforts involving spiritual, logistical and financial issues. The personal and religious compassion that I have witnessed began even before Katrina hit the Gulf Coast. 

The religious community has been focused on comforting the grieving, caring for the hurting, housing the displaced, finding jobs for those without paychecks and speaking of hope to the despairing.  Now, we also have to contend with political opportunists exploiting a national tragedy to push their agenda of government funding for favored religions—a policy that has never been approved by the Congress or the courts.

Specifically, several voices are calling for government funds to be channeled directly through houses of worship and other pervasively sectarian organizations to meet the critical needs of people impacted by the storms and floods.

This would violate the spirit and the letter of the Constitution, but some have discovered that tearing down Thomas Jefferson’s wall of separation between church and state is good for politics and good for dividing people. In short, it helps win elections. 

As even some former White House officials have testified, the push for government funding of religion in recent years has been a thinly disguised political tool used as a wedge issue against the administration’s adversaries.

“Many members of the president’s own party expressed equal parts apathy and antipathy towards the [faith-based initiative],” David Kuo, former deputy director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, told a House subcommittee in June. “We don’t need more funds, all we really need to do is make sure that we have a huge political fight over religious charities’ right to hire and fire based on their own faith. That way, Republicans will be seen as fighting for religion and Democrats will be seen as fighting against it.”

I am concerned precisely because I care about the independence and integrity of our nation’s religious community and value the power of religion as a source of healing.

By the time government officials called on religious leaders and houses of worship to assist Katrina’s evacuees, most of us already had been doing just that for hours, even days.  That is what we do; that is what religion is about.  It is our calling.

I welcome a constitutionally based partnership with government. Both religion and government can contribute to resolving fiscal and physical needs. However, only religious institutions alone can and should couple those efforts with the concerns of a spiritual nature.

Government has a vital role to play in aiding recovery and will do that best by performing its essential roles—providing basic social services and rebuilding sewage systems, hospitals, arteries for transportation, educational institutions and other key components of the nation’s infrastructure.

Regardless of how well-intentioned the action, however, government cannot and should not do the work of religion. 

Similarly, religion will make its best contribution to recovery efforts not by acting as an agency of the government, but by doing the work of religion—aiding efforts to relocate displaced people, providing food and clothing, nurturing a sense of community among strangers, and interacting with people who are interested in questions of faith, roots of hope, recovery from grief and the need for a spirituality of new beginnings. 

If the government is really interested in a strong faith-based initiative in this nation, its best contribution is to stay out of religion.  Neither in normal times nor in a crisis do we need a faith-based office in Washington, D.C. handling religious concerns.  We have a faith-based office; actually, we have scores of faith-based offices.  You can find them in local temples, synagogues, churches, mosques and gurdwaras.  They are open to everybody of every political persuasion, and receiving benefits from their services does not threaten anyone’s religious liberty or civil rights. 

Thanks to the independence and driving compassion of the religious community, we were helping hurting people while government agencies were still trying to decide where to go and what to do. 

Our nation should not exacerbate the tragic aftermath of Hurricane Katrina by allowing our leaders, acting under the guise of “helping people in need in a time of crisis,” to implement policies and pass legislation that will erode the Constitution and compromise its guarantee of religious freedom.

The Constitutional guarantees of freedom for religion and freedom from religion have done more good for religion, the nation, and religion-based charity than ever can be accomplished by direct government funding of politically favored religious organizations.