Should tax dollars go to reli- gious organizations en- gaged in charitable work? In the U.S. the central worry
is called “separation of church and
state,” while in Canada it’s called–
Well, here it’s usually “separation
of church and state” too, even
though that’s neither a Canadian
phrase nor a Canadian principle.
(Governments and churches have
a long history of co-operation in
Canada, for better and for worse.)
The key objection to governments supporting so-called faith-based organizations goes like this.
Any organization receiving government support is obliged to act as
if it were a government agency. Such
religious organizations therefore
should not be allowed to require
employees to meet their religious
tests, nor should they be allowed to
proselytize their clients.
Independent religious groups
have the right to apply religious
tests when it comes to jobs within
the organization. And of course
religious groups can try to persuade
others to join them.
But as soon as tax money is involved, no such religious discrimination and proselytizing should be
In reply, religious organizations
typically argue as follows.
Governments should pursue the
public good. They also should pursue that good in a way that seeks
maximum efficiency (we all hate the
idea of government waste) while
also observing basic principles of
justice (we all hate the idea of official
discrimination). So far, so good.
Faith-based organizations co-
operate with governments in pur-
suing certain public goods – helping
the needy, yes, but also in forming
stable and compassionate families,
asking and answering Big Questions,
Most such organizations, however, want to do so on their own
terms. And ay, there’s the rub.
If religious organizations can’t
retain anything distinctively religious in their work – such as requiring all their workers to be of that
particular religion, or requiring
their clients receive an introduction to that particular religion –
then many of these groups won’t do
that work. And that’s a loss to the
For every tax dollar contributed
to a cause, religious organizations
typically add dollars of their own,
plus volunteer time – and sometimes a lot of both. If governments
cut off those tax dollars and thereby
lose organizations doing work no
one else can or will do, then the
public good is deeply compromised.
In a nutshell, that is the case for
government sponsorship of faith-based initiatives.
It’s one thing to allow organiza-
tions to hire only their own people
and freely advertise who they are in
their work. We allow corporations
to do the same when they sponsor
It’s another thing, however, to
allow organizations who receive
tax dollars to compel recipients of
their services to read their material
or listen to their pitch, let alone
participate in their rallies.
The conspicuous exception here
of course would be organizations
that provide religiously oriented
education. No one is compelled to
go to such schools, and people who
opt for such education know what
they’re getting. So long as these
schools meet state standards, the
public good is advanced by these
religious institutions as they ac-
complish for far fewer tax dollars
what public institutions otherwise
would have to do.
This exception is defensible because students have many other
options. But what about clients
needing the basics of life who have
almost no other option? Imagine a
group that promotes a detestable
ideology, and that group opens a
soup kitchen where its workers
proselytize the desperate clients.
Should the government support
such a soup kitchen?
I for one would object, just like I
would object to the government
supporting a tutoring program or
prisoner education society that
insisted each child or inmate must
attend a service of worship to their
god before receiving their instruction.
In fact, I’m not terribly impressed
with organizations that want to
engage in charitable work merely
to gain converts. In the sociological
study of “new religious movements”
(we used to call them cults), there’s
a term for that kind of manipulative
charity – “love bombing.” And it’s
both insidious and odious.
So let’s distinguish sharply between allowing religious groups to
hire their own members to do the
group’s work, and letting them
subject the group’s clients to the
Then we can get on with achieving all those public goods we all
B Y CANADIANS
CHRIST & CULTURE IN CANADA
JOHN G. STACKHOUSE JR.
Your tax dollars
Tax dollars should go to faith-based groups – except
when they shouldn’t
John Stackhouse holds the Samuel J.
Mikolaski Chair of Religious Studies at
Crandall University. Find more of these columns at