Ronald Reagan picture

Remarks on Private Sector Initiatives at a White House Luncheon for National Religious Leaders

April 13, 1982

Well, welcome to the White House. I almost didn't get up here. I'm so used to being an after-lunch speaker that— [laughter] —before lunch as a speaker threw me. I have just some brief remarks here, and then after we get through eating, why, we'll have something of a dialog instead of a monolog.

We just celebrated the happiest and holiest holidays of the Christian faith, and we're in the sixth day of the eighth day of Passover, a reminder of our nation's Judeo-Christian tradition. Today America's in the midst of a period of reevaluation about the role of our fundamental institutions, what functions are within the proper sphere of government, which of those should be left at State and local levels, how much can government tax before it infringes on our citizens' freedom and damages the economy's ability to grow and prosper.

For some time now I've been convinced that there is a great hunger on the part of our people for a spiritual revival in this land. There is a role for churches and temples that—just as there has been throughout our history. They were once the center of community activity, the primary source of help for the less fortunate, with the churches that ran orphanages, homes for the elderly, other vital services. As late as 1935, at the depth of the Great Depression, a substantial portion of all charity was sponsored by religious institutions. And today, as we all know, the field seems to have been co-opted by government.

The story of the Good Samaritan has always illustrated to me what God's challenge really is—the injured pilgrim lying by the roadside, those who passed by, and then the one man, the Samaritan, who crossed over to help him. He didn't go running into town and look for a caseworker to tell him that there was a fellow out there that needed help. He took it upon himself. Today, we've become so used to turning to government rather than taking the personal time and effort required to help those in need. Some even confuse charity as being the money that is given for lobbying to get more social programs passed.

I realize there is apprehension in the religious community about budget cuts, fear that we're trying to dump responsibility on others, including the churches, and I understand that concern. While we've quite justly, and out of economic necessity, cut some budgets, we have not, contrary to what seems to be the perception, abandoned America's commitment to the poor.

Critics notwithstanding, overall social spending on the part of government is up. For example, the budget for Health and Human Services will total $274.2 billion in 1983, an increase of 8 percent or $20 billion over 1982. And that's $53 billion more than the defense budget. Our budget for Health and Human Services alone is larger than the national debts of all the countries in the world—or any other country in the world, except the United States and the Soviet Union. It provides increases for Head Start, social security, Medicare, and other safety net programs.

By and large, when people speak about budget cuts, what they're actually referring to is the trimming of projected increases in spending. Well, there've been some cuts in some programs, programs that were inefficient, top-heavy with bureaucracy, or not coming close to accomplishing what they set out to do. Government spending, in general, and social spending, in particular, got out of hand during the last decade. The Federal budget tripled, even though defense spending, in real dollars, was decreasing. I mention defense, because most of the critics of the budget seem to want to draw that comparison as to what we're doing in that regard. But with this growth in government came double-digit inflation, economic stagnation, and high levels of unemployment. Something had to be done.

If you just take inflation; if it had kept running at the rate it was in 1980, rather than what we brought it down to, a family of four on a fixed income of $15,000 would now be about $1,000 poorer in purchasing power. Inflation, which was 12.4 percent in 1980, has been averaging 4 1/2 percent for the last 6 months. To lay the groundwork for economic recovery, we had to make some changes. But we're maintaining our fundamental commitment to the poor.

We must recapture the spirit of brotherhood, however, of family and community that once was the hallmark of this country. We're trying to get people, once again, trying to help others directly. Accomplishing this is not simply a matter of raising money; it's not just reaching into our pockets but reaching into our hearts. I've established a Task Force on Private Sector Initiatives, chaired by Bill Verity, who is with us here today. It's coordinating a broad-range program that's beginning to have a tangible impact.

I appreciate that your presence here represents something of a commitment to provide the leadership necessary to build stronger working partnerships to tackle community problems throughout the country. But I'm not suggesting, nor have I ever suggested, that churches and other voluntary groups should pick up the dollar-for-dollar cost of reduced Federal programs. I just believe it would be a good thing for the soul of this country to encourage people to get involved and accept more direct responsibility for one another's health, happiness, and well-being, rather than leaving it to the bureaucracy.

When someone starts talking about accepting more responsibility, I know that many in organizations whose budgets are already pinched get a queasy feeling. Well, we all know the study of the 5,000 who were fed from what today would probably have been called a brown paper bag lunch—a few loaves and fishes. But somehow, God can take our limited resources and solve larger problems if we're willing to share and to have faith. Today I'm convinced that with God's help the American people are capable of great things and that we'll be blessed beyond all expectation if we only try.

George Bush's wife, Barbara, told me of a church that she visited in Atlanta, St. Luke's Episcopal Church. In the early seventies this church was in decline. It was losing membership and attendance. And then a few members realized that you only gain your life by giving it away. So, some of them started a food program. At first, it was just sandwiches at lunch for the needy of the neighborhood. Now it runs 7 days a week and serves up to 600 people a day. The church has also opened a building to an educational program for high school dropouts, which is jointly run by a nonprofit organization, the local school system, and members of the community. The church, incidentally, has grown tremendously in membership.

At this time of Passover we can be reminded of the wisdom of the Talmud, which says, "These are the things for which there are no prescribed limitations: the corner of the field for gleaners, the giving of the first fruits and the deeds of loving kindness. The fruit of these deeds is for them in this world, while the principle remains in the world to come." God's treasures surround us and are waiting for those willing to do His work.

Our task force on private initiatives, chaired by Bill Verity, has challenged the corporate community to double its philanthropic contributions. Today, while private citizens and corporations contribute $47 billion annually, 94 percent of U.S. corporations do not contribute more than $500 annually.

Now, contributions need not be in money. Companies can sponsor volunteer programs for their management and employees or even volunteer the use of their equipment. Prudential Insurance Company, for example, has the largest corporate vanpool system in the United States to bring their employees to and from work. Between office runs, their fleet of vans in Union County, New Jersey, is used to transport the elderly and the underprivileged. The potential for community projects like Prudential's van fleet is limited only by our imagination.

I suspect that those who manage corporations would be pleased to speak with the delegation of the local clergy with an idea of bettering the community. We must remember that many of those who run Americans' business do sit each week in church or synagogue here and there in the country.

If not the churches, whose job is it to touch the hearts of those who are not already involved? Pardon me if this sounds familiar, but: If not us, who? If not now, when?

Two years ago a Catholic nun, Sister Ruth Haney, and a Southern Baptist lady, Mrs. Janice Webb, discovered something in their town of Jefferson City, Missouri, that cried out for action. There are four prisons located in that city, and when families of the prisoners came to visit, many had to sleep in the park or under bridges. These two women of different faiths mobilized churches across the State, headed up a committee, and raised $46,000 from churches and individual members to buy an old rooming house three blocks from one of the prisons.

Individual churches took responsibility for renovating and furnishing the dozen rooms in the house and for the continued support of its operation. Mrs. Webb says, "Our sole purpose is to provide"—and I hope I'm pronouncing this right; I realized when I read the word I had never said it aloud—"agape, God's unconditional love to prisoners and their families." And so they named it the Agape House. They provide a bed and bath, but something deeper—the certainty that someone cares. This is the kind of spirit we need to draw upon.

In Chicago, Father Clements started the one-church-one-child program aimed at finding adoptive parents for minority 'children with special needs, handicapped children, children with learning disabilities, older children. The program, as its name suggests, asked each church to take responsibility to help one lost and lonely child find a home. In a year's time, 159 churches have responded to Father Clements' challenge, and he's taking the idea out of Chicago and going nationwide.

A few weeks ago, I met here in the White House with a group of 75 black ministers. It was a warm and inspiring meeting. Yes, they were concerned about our budget cuts. And we talked about that.

The black clergymen represent a noble tradition in this country. Their struggle to aid the poor, help the sick, and counsel the troubled has always been a real part of their ministry. I sincerely believe they have much to teach all of us about what can be accomplished. But today many black churches need a helping hand. If nothing else, I would hope that we see more religious organizations—black and white, Christian and Jewish—working together.

There is, for example, expertise in America's churches that could be put to use teaching the unemployed skills that would change their lives. Your churches and synagogues can be the catalyst to convene a strong community partnership that can and will make the difference.

It's time for me to sit down, but I'd like to end with this thought. We have problems in our country, and many people are praying and waiting for God to do something. I just wonder if maybe God isn't waiting for us to do something. And while no one else is capable of doing everything, everyone is capable of doing something.

This is the spirit that built and preserved our freedom, made us a humane and God-fearing people. It lives among us still, here in this house and across the land, and as long as it lives, so too will the America that we cherish.

And now it's my pleasure to invite His Eminence Terence Cardinal Cooke of New York City to ask a blessing on this lunch and this gathering.

Note: The President spoke at 12:09 p.m. in the State Dining Room at the White House.

Ronald Reagan, Remarks on Private Sector Initiatives at a White House Luncheon for National Religious Leaders Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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