Faith-Based Initiatives and Religious Pluralism

Government support for “faith-based initiatives” has been one of the most visible of George W. Bush’s initiatives during his two-term presidency.

This program was welcomed by many religious believers, especially Christians and most especially socially conservative Christians. Many of these Christians have been theologically conservative, as well. One implication of this is that many Christians in favor of faith-based initiatives object to religious pluralism.

Because so much support for faith-based initiatives comes from socially and theologically conservative Christians, some opponents of Bush’s policy have directed one particular argument against this constituency. They have argued that—under the government program—nonChristian institutions of faith must be allowed equal opportunity to participate in the program. They have then assumed that Christian entities in support of the policy would object to nonChristian participation. This would mean one that Christian supporters of the Bush policy have a double standard, one for themselves and another for nonChristian entities. And this is both offensive and non-viable in a socially and politically pluralistic environment such as we have in the United States. The alternative is for Christian groups to withhold support for faith-based initiatives. Without their support, one might imagine, the policy would die on the vine.

What should we make of this argument?

First, we must distinguish between religious pluralism, in the theological sense, and social and political pluralism. In the Christian theological tradition, “religious pluralism” is a term for broad approval of the view that salvation is available in the context of a variety of religions, rather than through Christ alone. Opposition to this kind of religious pluralism is compatible with acceptance of social and political pluralism; it’s even compatible with the sort of social and political toleration that is considered such a virtue.

In a modern democracy, there are bound to be many different kinds of religious communities, members of which have equal entitlement to participation in government arrangements. All have the same rights, freedoms and responsibilities. Christian advocates of faith-based initiatives are free to support nonChristian institutional participation in faith-based initiatives.

In fact, one expression of Christian charity would be to welcome the aid of nonChristian groups in the effort to assist members of society most in need of assistance.

We come to the second point. The objection to Christian support for faith-based initiatives, outlined above, may prove too much. It assumes that, apart from support by Christian conservatives, the faith-based Bush plan would lose traction. Let’s assume this is true. Why would that be?

I’m sure the answer is complicated. But part of the answer may have to do with how Christian institutions, among faith-based organizations, provide assistance to those in need. It may happen that a significant majority of faith-based assistance work is handled by Christian organizations. There are, after all, many more Christians in the United States than there are members of other faiths or secularists. But it would be of much more interest to learn about any differences there might be between Christian and nonChristian programs of assistance, in terms of theological motivation, organizational infrastructure, efficiency, lay participation, and so forth.

Christianity stresses “good Samaritan” behavior. It would be interesting to compare nonChristian faiths, and also secularism, on this point. Of course, organized groups of secularists are not faith-based entities, in the traditional sense. So, though they might support faith-based initiatives, in the interests of assisting by all means those in need, they would not qualify for participation in faith-based initiatives. At any rate, non-sectarian societies that exist to help others have long been supported in various ways with government aid.

We should recall another feature of the “good Samaritan” practice within Christianity. In his parable of the good Samaritan, Jesus instructed his audience to provide self-sacrificing assistance to those in need, even when those in need are not members of one’s own community—including one’s own community of faith. This perhaps explains why so many institutions (for example, hospitals and world relief organizations) have been the legacy of Christian social activism.

Studying the ways in which, and even the extent to which, different religious faiths conceive of their role in assisting the needy could contribute mightily to inter-faith understanding. It could also provide useful perspective for evaluating the objection to faith-based initiatives described above. Are Christian organizations the primary vehicles for the distribution of faith-based aid? If so, we might look to the social practices of nonChristian faith groups for a deep explanation.

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