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The Faith-Based Initiative of Martin Luther King

President Bush announced last week a dramatic expansion of his “faith-based initiatives” plan. These initiatives, which have been the centerpiece of Mr. Bush’s domestic social agenda, are aimed at channeling tax dollars to faith groups who provide certain social services. Speaking from the pulpit of the Union Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in New Orleans, the president tried to create a link between his initiatives idea and the work of Dr. Martin Luther King. The president said, “Dr. King understood that faith is a power greater than all others.”

And of course, he is right. Dr. King understood profoundly the power of faith. Out of his deep Christian commitment, Dr. King articulated a powerful prophetic call for justice that literally changed American history. But it is not at all clear that Dr. King would endorse a dubious partnership between church and state. In fact, there is considerable reason to think he would oppose such an idea.

For one thing Dr. King would quickly realize that these so-called faith-based partnerships are predicated on a false understanding of God. President Bush, and others who support faith-based partnerships, make the case that churches are more effective at providing social services than government. The reason why these groups are more effective, it is argued, is because faith groups are able to call on God.

Therein lies the false theology. Turning churches into service providers is a distortion of their intended purpose. That God can heal and help us is beyond dispute. But God is not at our beck and call. The purpose of the church is to gather for worship and to bear witness to God’s reality in the world.

But we don’t program the comings and goings of God in the world. God has a long habit of doing what God wants when God wants to do it. God might even do something in the world outside the church. At any rate, God does not show up simply because we hang out a sign that says, “Faith-Based Open for Business.”

Dr. King also understood something about workings of the state. Dr. King was a champion of religious liberty. He knew that the only way to ensure religious freedom for anybody was to guarantee religious freedom for everybody. That means all faiths must be treated equally under the law. If the state, in any of its forms, shows favoritism to one faith over another, religious liberty will be in jeopardy.

That’s why in 1962 when the landmark ruling in Engel v. Vitale banned teacher-led prayer in public schools, Dr. King praised the decision. He described the ruling as “a sound and good decision reaffirming something that is basic in our Constitution, namely separation of church and state.” Dr. King knew from his study of history that every time the church has yielded itself to the state, it has lost its prophetic voice, and occasionally its soul.

There is no doubt that Dr. King believed faith can change things. It was faith, after all, that gave Dr. King the courage to set himself against the cruel and unjust powers that supported racial segregation. It was also faith that saw those powers yield and even repent. If Dr. King were with us now, it is inconceivable that he would counsel us to risk that faith in the hands of those very same powers.

James L. Evans is pastor of Crosscreek Baptist Church in Pelham, Alabama.