GRAND RAPIDS — One would think that a religious think tank like the Acton Institute would be ecstatic about creation of a White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives.
But the institute’s director of programs, the Rev. Gerald L. Zandstra, says he has deeply mixed feelings about the proposal. In fact, he believes the rules that accompany federal funding could terminate the successes that local faith-based programs have enjoyed.
Zandstra told the Business Journal he certainly finds it refreshing to hear the nation’s chief executive speak of the power of faith in social action.
Likewise, he said it’s exciting to hear the president affirm the effectiveness of community-developed and community-run social programs.
But in an interview at the institute’s Waters Building headquarters, Zandstra said he is leery about the prospect of federal funding for local church-operated social programs.
He said it’s a question of motives.
“I think there’s a great deal of difference between acts of service done as a matter of passion in the name of Christ,” he said, “and service out of altruistic motives … to make me feel better about myself.
“And there’s a great deal of difference if I’m doing this kind of service because it’s demanded of me by my faith, or if I’m doing it in order to earn a living.”
Zandstra said he is not questioning the personal honesty of civil servants. But he fears something important is lost if a local parish’s program director or church worker becomes just another passenger on the federal gravy train.
“It’s somebody else’s dime,” he said, “and I think it pulls your focus away from your purpose.”
In an article on the same subject on the institute’s Web site, Zandstra writes that his chief concern is for the autonomy of religious organizations.
“In thinking about this whole matter,” he wrote, “I recall the advice of my mother: ‘If it’s free, you can’t afford it.’
“The lesson for my siblings and me was that nothing is free. What are the rules and regulations that accompany federal money? Will faith-based organizations that are funded by federal dollars become more concerned about pleasing their primary supporter than they are with serving their neighborhoods?”
Zandstra believes the answer is yes.
He believes federal funding might well vitiate the one thing that has made private local programs effective when federal agencies have amassed generations of failure.
“Local programs have succeeded because they are local,” he said. “Citizens in a community know who the poor are. They know what their particular problems are, why they are poor, and they have a better handle on what to do about it. They can make better decisions.”
But he questions whether federal funding even permits local decisions, because the proliferation of bureaucratic maxims — regulations promulgated by civil servants in Washington and enforced in regional offices in, say, Chicago — leave almost no local discretion.
He said it’s important to understand that while social action by churches … “feeding and sheltering the hungry and homeless and clothing the naked — are clearly a part of the ministry of the church, they are not the essence of what the church is about. The church is not a social service agency.
“And the history of the church demonstrates that a large amount of money is as dangerous to churches as it is to individuals.”
Objection to federal funding because of the regulations that accompany it is a typical position of the institute, which was founded, according to its mission statement, “
to promote a free and virtuous society characterized by individual liberty and sustained by religious principles.”
The institute is best known locally for its annual lecture series that over the years has featured U.S. Supreme Court justices, commentators from John Stossel to Michael Medved and many business leaders.
Zandstra’s work entails several programs nationally and abroad with religious leaders, educators, and people in business or the ministry to foster understanding of market principles and to encourage the economic freedom that creates opportunity for all.
The institute is named for Lord John Acton, a 19th century British scholar and political thinker. He espoused maximum personal liberty, and is most widely remembered for his view that power corrupts people, and absolute power corrupts them absolutely.