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Keeping the faith?

Religion | Christian charities face battles without and within about putting faith explicitly in their actions. Should federal funds go to religious groups? Should World Vision employ Muslims?

Issue: "Is Christianity in the U.S. doomed?," June 20, 2009

WASHINGTON-In the cool of the rainy season in Malawi, a man mounts his bicycle "ambulance," fitted with a light trailer to deliver his neighbor, stricken with AIDS, to the nearest clinic for antiretroviral drugs.

Pedal push after pedal push, he is one member of an army of volunteers who are slashing AIDS-related deaths in rural Malawi, a country with one of the highest rates of HIV/AIDS in the world. In a sparsely populated area near the shores of Lake Malawi, 10 church members are charged with the care of 71 people living with AIDS-and drugs aren't the only thing they're offering.

"The church shared the Word of God with me and this has brought me great hope," said Joyce Banda, who is HIV positive and fell under the care of the church members. "I used to feel like I was just waiting around to die."

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Banda's experience is at the heart of a debate in Washington about government money and religious charities. World Relief, which receives money from USAID, trained the church members who care for Banda, with the understanding that its work done with government funds won't involve any preaching.

Under the Bush administration, Christian organizations providing aid around the world with U.S. funds enjoyed a measure of freedom to keep their faith integrated with their services, but they are unsure now whether a new administration with new restrictions will alter their work in both body and soul. At the same time, debates over the role of evangelism in humanitarian work grow as the bigger tent "religious left" takes its seat at the table under a new administration.

The Obama doctrine, as pledged in a speech last July, is that organizations cannot use federal funds to "proselytize." In practice, this means that a Christian anti-addiction program could not say that faith in Jesus will enable a person to fight the despair that pushes people to heroin. Obama has also argued that faith-based groups should not "discriminate" in hiring against those who do not share their faith.

But so far the president has held off on changing policies that allow religion-based hiring, and his faith-based office has focused on a mostly domestic agenda of promoting responsible fatherhood, building interfaith dialogue, and reducing domestic poverty and unintended pregnancies. He has essentially left USAID alone, so far, and early in June has not yet nominated a new head for the agency.

"We just have to say this is not the Bush administration anymore. It's also not a fall off the cliff, where everything is turned back to the pre-Clinton years," said Stanley Carlson-Thies, who served in President Bush's faith-based office in 2001-2002. Carlson-Thies is now advising a subcommittee for Obama's faith-based advisory council. "Faith groups that care a lot about their faith should be quite wary-there might be changes down the road. They ought to read the fine print quite carefully. But we're not back in the '80s or '70s."

Back then, he explained, religious groups applying for government grants simply found their applications in the wastebasket. President Clinton, whose USAID administrator J. Brady Anderson was an evangelical Christian, helped change that by jump-starting the "charitable choice" policy in 1996, which prohibits discrimination against faith-based organizations for certain blocks of federal grants as long as they don't use the money to share their faith.

Seven of the top 10 recipients of USAID grants-according to numbers compiled by the Boston Globe through 2005-are Christian organizations. Catholic Relief Services, World Vision, Adventist Development and Relief Agency, Food for the Hungry, Samaritan's Purse, World Relief, and Opportunity International all claim Christianity as a centerpiece in their mission statements.

While USAID has strict rules about the sharing of faith, the line between what is acceptable and unacceptable can blur.

Currently, staff members are permitted to pray or worship after providing a meal, for example, as long as they indicate recipients don't have to pray in order to eat. Staff can talk about God's love as long as the conversation occurs outside the physical location or time where aid is delivered (the "or" is something that changed under Bush, allowing faith expressions and aid to occur in the same place). Organizations can have government-funded activities in church buildings. USAID's current guidelines read, "A religious organization need not purge, conceal or compromise its religious character."

This could change, especially depending on whom Obama chooses to head USAID. A new director can make subtle changes in the fine print-like encouraging AIDS prevention through "delayed sexual initiation and partner reduction" instead of "abstinence and faithfulness" programs, all aside from major changes like forbidding religion-based hiring.

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