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A viewpoint by Cal Thomas: Why does the church need the state?

June 30, 2001

While President Bush was touting his revised ‘‘faith-based'' initiative at the U.S. Conference of Mayors in Detroit on Monday, some Democrats were charging that Republicans are working to undermine one of the plan's central provisions. It is the proposal to allow people who don't itemize their deductions to get a tax break when they contribute to religious and charitable organizations that help the poor.

Democrats say Rep. Bill Thomas (R-Ca.), chairman of the congressional Joint Committee on Taxation, wants to ‘‘gut'' this provision because of an estimate by the committee that it would cost $83 billion over 10 years. Democrats claim Thomas is concerned that the administration's tax cut won't allow that big a revenue loss. Thomas is said to desire a $20 billion cost ‘‘cap.'' A committee spokesman declined comment, but a committee source said there are ‘‘several versions'' of the bill and that markup and a vote are at least a week away.

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Beyond the cost and even beyond the president's commendable desire to do more for the needy, something should trouble especially Christian ministries that would receive money from the government for their ‘‘faith-based'' programs.

In Deuteronomy 15:11, God says this about the poor: ‘‘There will always be poor people in the land. Therefore, I command you to be open-handed toward your brothers and toward the poor and needy in your land.'' In Matthew 26:11, Jesus makes a similar point: ‘‘The poor you will always have with you.''

While there are biblical commands about justice, there are no expectations that government should be the primary provider of help for the poor. That is the job of the church. The reason it is the job of the church is so that God's love might be demonstrated in tangible ways in order that the poor might open their hearts to a greater and intangible message. It is this latter mission that many believe will be compromised should the president's ‘‘faith-based'' plan win congressional approval. It is not so much about church-state issues. It is about the possibility the church will be further robbed of its privilege and responsibility to God for the poor.

What kind of job are Christian churches doing? Not a very good one, according to the Barna Research Group, which studies religious behavior and attitudes.

Reported giving to nonprofit organizations and churches, says Barna, was down 6 percent last year from 1999. The average giving per person last year was a paltry $886, 15 percent less than the previous year.

When churches alone are studied, Barna says six of 10 adults put money in the collection plate, with the average annual donation amounting to just $649, down from an $806 average in 1999.

Some of those making the biggest noise about the declining state of our culture gave the least. While 39 percent of all adults gave nothing to a church last year, nearly one-quarter were people who identified themselves as ‘‘born again.'' Since the biblical standard is the tithe (donating 10 percent of annual income to the church, a custom only 12 percent of the born again practice, says Barna), it appears those commanded to do the most are actually doing the least.

Churches should feel insulted that government wants to step in where its own angels have stopped treading. Churches should feel convicted of their underperformance in caring for the needy.

There are dozens of verses in both the Old and New Testaments indicating God's care and concern for the poor and His displeasure with people who ignore them. But there is no call for ‘‘Caesar'' to be the primary provider of help. That's the basic work of churches.

When Christians refuse to obey God in this matter, judgment falls on them. The government has the capability of feeding the hungry and clothing the naked, but if Christians allow themselves to be replaced in such efforts, they will have traded their birthright for something of far less value.

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