Mirror of Justice

A blog dedicated to the development of Catholic legal theory.
Affiliated with the Program on Church, State & Society at Notre Dame Law School.

Tuesday, March 23, 2004

Government Aid and Religion's Mediating Function

Rick and Kathleen have insightfully identified a (perhaps the) major problem facing proponents of a vibrant role for religion in the social services arena. Often such proponents will reflexively favor government funding of religious associations as a way to level the secular/religious playing field and expand the scope of religion's mission-driven impact on society. Certainly government funds may allow groups to meet more needs, increasing their viability and attracting new members to a collective endeavor that previously may have seemed ineffectual or, at a minimum, peripheral to the government’s dominant social service role. But too much outside influence may negate the attributes that make groups valuable in the first place.

As Neuhaus and Berger recognized years ago, we value religious and other voluntary associations in significant part because they mediate between the individual and the surrounding society, empowering us to forge common identities that are separate from -- and even opposed to -- the identity reflected in the collective institutions of the state. By foregoing its core mission or watering down its identity as a condition of government funding, a previously independent association could be turned into, in essence, an arm of the government. Such a shift endangers any meaningful mediating function -- i.e., as allegiance to the government as a funding source increases, the association’s ability to serve as a mediating force between individuals and the government necessarily declines. (This prospect is explored further in my article, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: Rethinking the Value of Associations, posted in the sidebar.) This does not mean that the government should categorically preclude religious associations from obtaining the same funding that secular groups are eligible for, but it does mean that religious groups should think hard before taking their place at the government trough. It becomes even stickier, of course, when government funding becomes essentially a requirement of the industry, as is currently the case in health care and potentially with school vouchers (i.e., if every other private school has much of their tuition subsidized by the government, a religious school will be hard-pressed to compete effectively in the market without such subsidies).

I don't have an easy solution by any stretch, but I am becoming more intrigued by the value pluralism espoused by Isaiah Berlin (and others) to see if it could inform the civil society debate in a way that would protect social service providers' identies, even if that necessitates giving up some of liberalism's gains in the process. At a minimum, I think that civil society proponents (a category in which I count myself) need to be cognizant of the significant dangers that accompany the government's efforts to harness our "armies of compassion."



Vischer, Rob | Permalink

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