Faith-based initiatives: some considerations

“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses..” opines the Statue of Liberty.

“I was hungry and you did not feed me…” Jesus rants to the “goats” on his left side before the Throne of Judgment.

Who do the huddled masses belong to–the government or the church? An interesting question historically. You only have to go back to Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men to read a novel of machine politics and political patronage in our not so distant past. Or look at the cartoons of Thomas Nast, portraying the new York political machine of Tammany Hall as a tiger devouring democracy. Today you can see HIsbollah in Lebanon or The Moslem Brotherhood in Egypt provide social services where the government is unable to move quickly, thereby winning a political base for their extremist religious politics. It doesn’t take much either, a few blankets here and there, to be recognized as the group to go to that can solve your problems.

So feeding the hungry isn’t just good religious doctrine–and you better believe the churches recognize it as one of their missions–but it also makes good political sense. Whoever controls government services controls votes.

But what about all the different levels of government? There’s state government, city government, mosquito abatement district…the Chicago area alone has some 300 independent governmental entities. If it’s in the interest of the federal government to give money to churches for social programs, is it also in the interest of the city government? Not necessarily.

Consider the major urban phenomenon of the 60’s–the flight to suburbia.

Everyone wanted a piece of the American dream, a bit of their own land with a house on it. The resulting urban sprawl left urban planners scratching their heads, while the inner cities experienced a sudden decay cause by the loss of their tax base. Now the cities are gradually getting back on their feet as younger people move back into the city and gentrification reclaims blocks that were once blighted. And America’s mayors have figured out that if they have a huge population with social problems, and no tax base to solve the problems, one way to solve the problem is to export the social problems to the suburbs where the tax base is.

So what happens if there is a church intent on ministering to the homeless. Do you think the homeless are going to trot right out to a first tier suburb if the federal government is giving inner city churches the money to keep them right there? No way. Google Victory Gardens. You know the song about Chicago “the town that Billy Sunday couldn’t shut down”. Yep, that’s Billy Sunday’s old digs. If you read enough about it, you will find out that it has a huge homeless shelter. But the homeless aren’t allowed to stay there during the day. They have to leave the building. Next door to the mission is an elementary school. The school is upset about the mission. They say they find whiskey bottles on school ground by the alley. They have hired extra guards so the kids can play. The mission has been offered several million to relocate but they won’t do it. They say their operation is worth more than they have been offered. So the homeless wander all over the city, sleeping in churches and panhandling for meals on the nearby streets.

So will Obama’s offer of money to these faith-based services reverse the revitalizaion of the cities?

Another nearby town has taken a different stance. Their churches do not have the resources to feed the hordes that show up on their doorsteps, so they have prevailed upon the city to build a warming center. Any homeless who show up at a church looking for assistance are given a free ride to the city’s warming center where there are social workers on hand to help them get services.

I’m sure the nation’s mayors would be more than happy if the federal government could set up and pay for their own secular social services–away from the cities’ already overextended business districts.

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