Ministers Study Obama's Plan For Faith-Based Groups

Sen. Barack Obama pledges that, if president, he would continue the Bush administration's support of community programs run by faith-based groups. In this week's Faith Matters, the Rev. Hershael York of the Southern Baptist Seminary and the Rev. Eugene Rivers of the Azusa Christian Community explain the moral and political dilemmas of federal funding for faith-based initiatives.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. Just ahead, we'll dip into our mail bag and find out what's up with the blogosphere. Stay tuned for Backtalk. But first, it's time for our weekly Faith Matters conversation. President Bush has made expanding federal dollars for faith based programs a signature of his administration. It's always been controversial. Some argue that the initiative degrades the country's tradition of the separation of church and state. Others think it's just a vehicle to promote Mr. Bush's conservative political agenda, but many other people think that the government should support the good works that religious organizations do.

Both presumed presidential candidates back faith based initiatives, but Senator Obama said he would actually expand the scope of the initiatives, while demanding accountability and nondiscrimination in hiring. Here to talk about this, the Reverend Eugene Rivers, he's a community activist and pastor of the Azusa Christian Community in Boston, Massachusetts, and Reverend Hershael York, pastor of Buck Run Baptist Church in Frankfurt, Kentucky, and a professor at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. I welcome you both. Thank you for joining us.

Reverend EUGENE RIVERS (Activist, Pastor, Azusa Christian Community): Good morning.

Reverend HERSHAEL YORK (Pastor, Buck Run Baptist Church, Professor, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary): Thank you. Good to be with you.

MARTIN: Reverend Rivers, you do a lot of work in the community. Do you accept federal money?

Rev. RIVERS: I have.

MARTIN: Do you...

Rev. RIVERS: Yes. Over the last 10 years.

MARTIN: For what kinds of things?

Rev. RIVERS: For after school programs, for fatherhood programs for ex-offenders, for job training programs. We've accepted over the last 15 years actually, prior to Bush, federal funding to use sacred institutions to serve secular purposes and meet needs that faith based organizations in intercity black communities are uniquely positioned to provide.

MARTIN: That's what I wanted to ask you. Why do you think that the federal government should support programs that are sponsored by or driven by religious institutions?

Rev. RIVERS: The federal government should support any programs that can generate measurable results and effectively provide services. There was - we've known since abolitionism, right, that faith based organizations can play a major role, and in the black community, the black church is the premier sovereign institution in the black community. And so this is not physics or theology. It is a case where faith based institutions can serve secular purposes as a function of the fact that they have extraordinary numbers of volunteer resources that have been traditionally within the context of the black community, used.

The other point is that in the black community we don't have intense debates, except with maybe four or five elites that live in Harvard Square on the church-state separation issue. That's never been an issue for us, just like we've never fought about Genesis and the origins of humanity. That was Genesis. Fighting about Genesis is not our issue. The church-state debate is a secular liberal elite debate. It's not a debate that preoccupies the minds of, you know, 23 million black people who go to 65,000 black churches.

MARTIN: I should mention that you went to Harvard so perhaps your analysis of the debate at Harvard Square might be well founded, or it may not be. I don't know. But Reverend York, could I ask you, what's your take on this on the whole question of using federal dollars for religiously driven programs?

Rev. YORK: Well, my view is a little bit complicated. First of all, I believe that the federal government is correct and ought to provide funds to organizations that are providing services that the government won't have to do. Churches like Reverend Rivers' church that are doing good work in parts of the city, they deserve those dollars to help them feed and clothe and shelter and whatever works that they're doing. Those needs are ubiquitous. Those needs know no color, they know no religion. Those needs are going to have to be provided by someone, and so I think it's proper for the government to provide dollars to help them do that because they can do it more effectively and more efficiently.

However as a Baptist minister, I would not receive such funds because I do not trust the government and it's long tentacles because it really is like hugging and octopus, and I fear, even as Senator Obama has already said that in his approach to faith-based initiatives he's wanting to limit hiring practices of the organizations that do faith based initiatives and I just don't want anybody telling me who I can and cannot hire.

MARTIN: Well, as you said, the core difference between Senator Obama and President Bush's approach and Senator McCain agrees with President Bush's approach is that Senator Obama says if you take federal money you can't discriminate against people. Reverend York, what's wrong with that?

Rev. YORK: Well, because to force my church for instance, if we were - if we're feeding the poor and we're taking federal dollars and those dollars are going to buy food. To then force me to not take into account whether or not someone I hire is living out of wedlock for instance of someone of the opposite sex or is in a homosexual relationship, that is to go against the core of who we are as a church. I wouldn't ask - let's say if there's a gay organization that is providing those services and the government is helping them do that, I don't think they ought to be forced to hire an Evangelical Christian. I mean there are hiring practices that just go completely against the core beliefs and values of an organization, and I really don't think the government should get involved in that and force me or my church to go against our core beliefs.

MARTIN: Reverend Rivers, what about that?

Rev. RIVERS: What's great about the United States is it's a free country. Actually, the federal government doesn't really force you to do anything except force you to pay taxes unless of course you want to go to jail. The reality is there's a very simple solution to this. If you don't want to hire someone, don't take the money. There's no coercion here. If you don't want to accept the basic federal guidelines for participating in such a faith based program, there's a very simple solution, don't take the money.

MARTIN: What about the...

Rev. RIVERS: I mean here again, no physics.

MARTIN: What about Reverend York's idea that this - that taking this federal money actually dilutes the identity or can dilute the identity of - the religious identity of these institutions. What do you think about that?

Rev. RIVERS: I'm sure that there may be some religious organization institutions for whom that might apply. The vast majority of black churches, and I'll just talk about them because I know them, the vast majority of black churches, or Roman Catholic Churches for that matter, because they're the big winners in this faith based game, have no fear. The Lutherans, the Catholics, the smarter end of the Evangelical community, and the black churches, none of these people - I've heard and I've worked with the initiative since its inception politically in the Bush administration. I'd never heard anyone complain who was a recipient of the money that somehow their theological integrity was in any way diluted. There were two separate sets of books. Here's the church and here's our 501(c)(3) and we're going to do our thing.

MARTIN: Well, I have heard people complain, because their argument is that the very thing that - that the mystery of faith as it were is best expressed by people who all share that faith and some people say well, my ability to do what I do is compromised if I can't do it with people who share my vision. What do you say about that?

Rev. RIVERS: Well, back to my original proposition. Then don't take the money. I mean here again, I want - it's not physics. If one believes that being consistent with their core theological identity will be, you know, compromised as a result of being in compliance with federal law with regards to receiving the funds, don't take the money.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us you're listening to Tell Me More from NPR News. I'm speaking with Reverend Eugene Rivers and Reverend Hershael York about the pros and cons of government support for faith based initiatives. Reverend York, do you ever worry that perhaps great opportunities for service are being missed out on because people are not taking federal money?

Rev. YORK: Well, I do because I think that people who are on the ground as it were - these - these are the - the forces that are - are witnessing what's happening in domestic life and the needs of people. They're the ones closest to the action and know the needs and can identify the needs and so with the government talk of forcing hiring and cutting that to the core of who we are, I do believe that opportunities are missed because obviously churches are limited in what they can afford to do even when they have the personnel and the heart to do it. So when Senator Obama proposes limiting the hiring practices of any faith based organizations that take the money, I do believe it will have a chilling effect.

MARTIN: But if you - do you - but you see the sort of the fundamental principle that if it's my money and we happen not to share the same faith perspective, then you can't discriminate against me. Is that - do you think that's a reasonable point of view to take?

Rev. YORK: I don't. And I'll tell you why, because I think that there are enough different organizations out there that there - if you look at it sort of on the macro-economic level that there are still plenty of jobs available. There are still plenty of opportunities for people of all faiths and all beliefs, systems to have that job. That doesn't mean that my church, just because we receive these federal dollars that we have to be available to all people of all faiths in all belief systems.

Reverend RIVERS: Oh see, here again - we come up against the very basic fact which is part of the greatness of the country. This is a pluralistic society. And I mean as I heard one Pentecostal preacher, because you're a good Baptist brother. I come from the higher (unintelligible) wing of the lowest part of the church, the Pentecostals. And we're very conservative theologically. But on this issue, we've exempted to say we're not going to let the perfect, be the enemy of the good. To the extent to which some good can be done by being in compliance with the federal regulations, we're going to do as much good as we can. Where we bump up against federal regs, unless we're going to comply, we'll just pass. But we're not going to create this perfect enemy of the good zero-sum game. That's simply not prudent in our judgment. I mean, I think the other piece of this is that, you know, listen, if the Lord has called you and you don't want to comply with federal regulations, tell Jesus to send you the money.

MARTIN: Reverend York?

Rev. YORK: Well, that's precisely what we do. That's why we don't take federal dollars.

Rev. RIVERS: Amen.

Rev. YORK: We do ask Jesus to send us the money.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Reverend Rivers, have these restrictions ever cramped your style?

Rev. RIVERS: No. I'm...

MARTIN: Because you - as you point out, your tradition is very conservative theologically as are you personally. Have you ever found yourself inhibited in what you thought you could do because you are choosing to take these dollars?

Rev. RIVERS: No, not at all. I mean, we have always been very smart and stayed, you know, on the right side of the regs and didn't want to risk - especially if you're fairly highly visible, you know you've got to really play to the letter of the law, because things can get interesting in your life publicly. So, we've never felt inhibited at all.

MARTIN: But what about compromise? Morally compromise in the sense have you ever felt, OK, so perhaps, I know you do a lot of work with youth and particularly with, a kind of, gang outreach and trying to mediate gang sort of disputes. Have you ever been in this situation? I don't want to obviously call names but we're - the person who might be best suited to do that particular task, does not comport with you on other important values and that you feel in efforts - in essence you're sending them a mixed message.

Rev. YORK: Well, no. I mean, all of the thugs that I have been involved with have always been clear on where Reverend Rivers was. And they knew personally in terms of sexual ethics and money and the rest of it. Rivers is a very conservative guy. Now, he's very creative on how he exhibits his conservatism. But at the end of the day, he's a very conservative guy and in fact, I tell you, the irony is that that has actually worked for me because once you establish a presence which exhibits integrity and people note on the ground the moral consistency, they respect that. Even when they disagree with you, they respect the fact that there is a logical and moral internal consistency to the position. And I think that - and I take your question, Michel.

I - you know, we run a non-profit called the Ella J. Baker House named after the civil rights activist Ella J. Baker and we have hired individuals who we subsequently discovered were gay. Now, they didn't bring any of that business on the job and we did not discriminate against them on the basis of the fact that that was their particular lifestyle. As long as they did the job that they were assigned to do, there was no basis for us, saying well, you got a lifestyle, we're not thrilled with. Hence, you're fired. We never did that. And it never interfered - our ability to effectively work with the most severely high risk kids in the city.

MARTIN: OK. Reverend York, I wish I had time for a response from you if you care to give one we'd love to post it on our web site. I apologize for that. We're running out of time. The Reverend Eugene Rivers is pastor of the Azusa Christian Community in Boston. He joined us from member station WGBH in Boston. We were also pleased to be joined by the Reverend Hershael York. He is pastor of Buck Run Baptist Church in Frankfort, Kentucky. He's a professor at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He's an occasional contributor to our program and he joined us from their campus in Louisville. I thank you both so much.

Rev. YORK: Thank you, Michel.

Rev. RIVERS: You're welcome.

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