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Martyred for the Gospel

Martyred for the Gospel
The burning of Tharchbishop of Cant. D. Tho. Cranmer in the town dich at Oxford, with his hand first thrust into the fyre, wherwith he subscribed before. [Click on the picture to see Cranmer's last words.]

Collect of the Day

The Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany.
The Collect.

O LORD, we beseech thee to keep thy Church and household continually in thy true religion; that they who do lean only upon the hope of thy heavenly grace may evermore be defended by thy mighty power; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Daily Bible Verse

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Do Faith-Based Programs Violate Separation of Church and State?

In a recent Christianity Today article, "Imprisoned Ministry," the question was raised as to whether or not faith-based programs to reform prison inmates violate the principle of separation of church and state. Having worked as a state prison chaplain in Florida for almost four years, I believe that my opinion is qualified from that experience.

At one time I was committed to faith-based programs and believed that such programs could indeed effect lasting change and reform of criminals who really wanted help. However, the longer I worked as a chaplain the more I came to realize how deeply rooted social and psychological problems are with men and women who wind up incarcerated. Of course, being a theologian of sorts, I realize that the root of all dysfunctional behavior is the fall of mankind into rebellion and sin against God and that all of Adam's descendants, both male and female, are counted guilty of Adam and Eve's original sin and also inherit a complete and total corruption or depravity within their human nature. This total depravity does not mean that all of us are as wicked as we could be in our actions but that every single human being has had every area of the human nature affected and corrupted by sin, including the mind, will, heart, and soul.

The fact of the matter is that sin is both an individual and a social problem. Extremely right wing conservatives in the political arena tend to downplay the responsibility and accountability of society in creating dysfunctional and oppressive social structures and circumstances that contribute to the deterioration of the family and to social problems like crime, drug and alcohol abuse, domestic violence, abortion, prostitution, and juvenile delinquency. Of course, everyone agrees that individuals own responsibility and accountability for their own choices and actions in life. But the problem is that the Bible itself sees sin as more than just individual choices. Scripture clearly raises the issue of familial, tribal and even national sins. And sometimes in Scripture we see God punish whole families and tribes for the sins of their leaders. At Ai, for example, Achan and his whole family and all of his animals are destroyed as a result of his stealing valuables as booty when such items were under a ban during the holy war that God had called for (see Joshua 7:1-26). The nation of Israel itself was divided and taken into captivity to Assyria and Babylon in 722 B.C. and 586 B.C. respectively.

Personally, I believe that our nation as a whole bears some of the responsibility for social problems, since the Bible itself takes that position. The Bible also provides for "welfare" programs to help the needy, the alien, the widow and the orphan. Interestingly, the Bible even provides for the support of a professional priesthood. What is different today, however, is that we no longer live under the direct revelation of God through a prophet like Moses. The ancient nation of Israel was a theocracy and had a prophet who spoke face to face with God. Furthermore, the United States today is a secular nation which also upholds the principles of religious freedom and the separation of church and state. There is to be no interference of the state in religious matters or in the church. Additionally, there is to be no state supported church nor should public tax monies go to establish a religion, church, or religious interest, be it atheistic or overtly religious. The law of the land should neither establish secular humanism nor atheism as a official "religion" anymore than it should establish traditional Christianity as its "official" religion. It is often a balancing act to know how to bring about this plurality of religions and non-religions so that the law is upheld without discriminating against any particular group whether it be religious or non-religious.

Having said all of that, I believe that the Prison Fellowship programs as stated in the Christianity Today article do indeed violate the separation of church and state. My original understanding of the program was that all staff would be paid by funds raised through local churches. Instead we find that the program director and others are paid from taxpayers' funds. Not only does this establish Prison Fellowship as a government sponsored religious institution, but it also undermines the vitality of churches and true faith. When churches become state sponsored the inevitable end is that faith is weakened and religious fervor is dampened. People tend to take religion for granted and the church grows increasingly stagnant. Attendance drops and the church loses the power to transform individuals and society through its prophetic witness to Jesus Christ.

While the success rate of the Prison Fellowship program looks great on paper and the recidivism rate is much lower than other programs at first glance, this positive assessment is only apparent before considering those who drop out of the program. Further examination shows that about 58% of all inmates drop out. Since Prison Fellowship allows non-Christians to participate, I'm guessing that mostly non-Christian inmates are dropping out. Thus, this is further evidence that the state is essentially endorsing Christianity as an official religion. Can you imagine what Christians would say if some Islamic organization were getting this sort of special treatment and endorsement by state and federal governments?

It is my opinion that only those inmates who are sincere about a transformation in their life will be able to benefit from a faith-based program. Furthermore, even those who are sincere often come back to prison because of a lack of support from family and church on the outside. To measure the success of a program solely on recidivism rates misses the point completely. Of course, we should be concerned about recidivism rates. But if we are concerned about recidivism, then churches ought to be doing more to integrate the homeless, the poor, and the ex-prisoner into society and into the life of their parishes and churches!

It is precisely for these reasons that the government should not be using taxpayer funds to endorse any faith-based programs of any kind. To do so is to essentially support the conversion of inmates to a particular religion through a governmental means. Moreover, I am opposed to giving tax funds to the Salvation Army or Roman Catholic social service organizations for the same reasons. If churches wish to have programs to help the poor, let them raise their own funds to do so. Let religious organizations practice what they preach and encourage charity and generosity to the less fortunate and let their ministers and leaders demonstrate this by their own example. They should take lower salaries or give more of their salaries to charity, particularly those ministers who benefit from a wealthy parish or church.

I believe that government agencies should feel free to refer those in need to various religious programs that are compatible with the individual's own beliefs; however, the government should not be in the business of religion or supporting religion with tax funds. Moreover, my opinion has changed because from my experience, not even faith-based programs are that successful. Social problems and individual dysfunction is so ingrained because of the sinfulness of human beings and of social structures that real, practical change can only come about by a direct intervention by God Himself. This does not excuse us from making an effort to help the poor and the prisoner and the homeless, however (see Matthew 25:31-46; James 2). We should support non-religious social programs paid for by taxpayer funds. But to use those same funds to sponsor one religion above another under the guise of transformational programs is both misguided and unconstitutional. Not only that but they don't seem to be working. If anything, governmental endorsement of religion weakens not only our religious freedom but also the vitality of religion itself. The ancient nation of Israel was a theocracy yet having a national religious identity did not prevent national apostasy and eventual disintegration and the judgment of God.

I believe Christians should continue to participate in the political process and to work for the reform of the nation and society. We want to uphold human rights from a biblical perspective. But in doing so we should not sell out to endorsing big business to the neglect of the poor, nor should we sell out to immorality in the name of helping the poor. Furthermore, we should never allow any single religious group to receive tax funds or government support since this amounts to a violation of church and state. The Republican experiment in faith-based programs seems to be a dismal failure at this point. Perhaps in another post I will examine the issue of separation of church and state regarding public education.

Peace!

[Postscript: The argument over justification by faith alone is often challenged by an appeal to James 2:17-26. However, both those advocating justification by faith alone and those advocating a justification by our own merits overlook the context of James chapter 2. The immediate issue and the immediate context of James' remarks is not justification itself but charity to the poor and favoritism toward the wealthy and the middle class. Christians should also note that Matthew 25 makes it clear that individuals and the church as a whole will be judged according to how we have ministered to the less fortunate. I believe the Bible does teach a preferential option for the poor. Anyone reading the Bible in context cannot avoid this implication except by a sinful hardening of the heart and a natural propensity to covetousness and idolatry. Luke's account of the rich young ruler and other stories is proof of this, as well as Matthew's sermon on the mount.]

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I recall reading a theory which held that state support of religions, together with a history of bloody religious wars, account for much of the lack of religious faith among modern Europeans. Conversely, the lack of state support together with the rich and diverse variety of denominations in America may account for the greater role faith plays in the lives of so many Americans.

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