Government or religion? We need them both.

by Rabbi Nancy Kasten

“Let the churches do it,” they say. “It’s not the job of the government to take care of people who can’t take care of themselves. That’s what charity is for.”

Religion has always played a role in addressing social and human needs. But over time, the private and nonprofit spheres–often religiously based–have been overwhelmed by those needs. This is partly due to increasing needs, needs exacerbated by the government’s abdication of its own responsibility in meeting them. Lately, that abdication has become even more acute: calculating and intentional hindrance to human benevolence efforts.

On January 29, 2001, nine days after his inauguration as 43rd President of the United States, George W. Bush issued an executive order creating the Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives in the White House. The Bush administration reasoned that adding the professional expertise of faith-based service providers to well established non-sectarian nonprofits would strengthen the ability of the government to address human services needs and our country’s most complex social problems. Response to this initiative was mixed in religious as well as secular communities. A Pew research study at the time revealed strong concerns about what the government might do to religion and what religious groups might do to the people they tried to help.

No one imagined then what we are facing now—a situation in which some elected officials and government policies openly and unabashedly thwart the efforts of nonprofits, religious or not, to address humanitarian needs and solve complex social problems, even to the extent of criminalizing them. They promote an illusion that somehow these needs and problems will be addressed by people out of the goodness of their hearts, and withhold investment in the training and resources that only an adequately-funded government can provide. This is a broken partnership.

Our free enterprise, capitalist economic system has helped to raise the poverty threshold, but it has not reduced the number of those living in poverty. By endorsing this economic system through public policy, we accept the fact that it will produce winners and losers. What will happen to those who are left out or left behind? Should that only be the concern of the charitable religious sector?

As 2023 opens onto a landscape of crises —local and global—that we had previously believed or prayed would remain in the realm of science fiction, people of faith should think creatively and expansively about the role we can and must play in strengthening local, state and federal government. If we think of faith communities exclusively as service providers, and not as partners in shaping and executing ethical, human-centered public policy, the demand for services will continue to far outpace our ability to provide them. 

Case in point: Jewish Family Services of Dallas offers a food pantry, emergency housing and financial assistance, support services for older adults and people with disabilities, family violence intervention, mental health and counseling services for adults, children and teens, and career and financial services. In 2022 JFS became partners in the new Jubilee Park Community Clinic because it was so hard for people without access to primary care or dental care to benefit from the other services they offered. This integrative approach to wellness is long overdue, and should be replicated. But to do so our state government must protect a tax base robust enough to support local hospitals, because they are the essential partners for projects like Jubilee Park.

On January 10 the next Texas State Legislative Session begins. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick has said that property tax relief, electric grid fixes and border security are his top priorities. None of Mr. Patrick’s priorities will help more Texans get the health care they desperately need. None of them address the stress on food banks, where needs have increased by 17% since March in North Texas alone. None of them will generate jobs with salaries that will make homeownership possible for more workers in our state. Yet Texas leads the nation in percentage of uninsured, has one of the nation’s highest rates of food insecurity among children, and has one of the country’s lowest homeownership rates. A person has to own property in order to get property tax relief. And that tax relief comes at the expense of public services, including hospitals and schools. 

People of faith and faith communities will always make donations and volunteer, and state policies should support our work rather than undermining it. Advocating for those policies is not hard, but it involves intention and attention, and a shift in mindset about the role of faith in the public square. 

We at Faith Commons urge you to pay attention to the bills being considered in the upcoming legislative session. Add your state legislators phone numbers into your favorites and call them when bills come up that address the issues you care about. Join a team with Texas Impact so you can be updated with information and action items as bills are introduced and make their way through the system. Join  a group of friends or fellow congregants to travel to Austin to lobby. Tell your friends and family members that property tax relief might buy them a nice dinner or pair of shoes, but it comes at the expense of social and human services for millions of Texans. Make this the year to remind the current Governor of Texas of the vision of partnership between church and state held by a former Governor of Texas. 

1. Join a Texas Impact Team:

https://texasimpact.org/join-a-team/

2. Get updates on bills from Every Texan

https://everytexan.org