December 1, 1998 | Commentary on Religion and Civil Society, Civil Society

The Bully and the Pulpit

Every day by 5 a.m., 90 of the 380 inmates at the Jester II prison outside Houston are awake and primed--not for pumping iron, but for praying. The men, some of whom are violent felons, are enrolled in an intensive Christian rehabilitation program hosted by prison officials. "We talk Jesus every day, every minute," says program director Jack Cowley, "and we don't hide that fact at all." State guards provide security, but volunteers from Prison Fellowship otherwise run this wing of the facility, better known as the God Pod.

In South Carolina, Governor David Beasley used his leftover campaign funds to set up a religious nonprofit group with a singular mission: recruit churches and synagogues to "adopt" welfare families and lift them toward independence. The effort is vigorously backed by the state's Department of Social Services (DSS). "We've done focus groups with clients who've been successful in getting off welfare and we asked them the most important aspect of their success," says Leon Love, a DSS official. "They say it's attitude--and faith is the most important builder of attitude."

At Parkview Elementary School in Washington, D.C., the Reverend Jim Till heads a privately run, faith-based tutoring program. Thursday nights in the cafeteria, volunteers from local churches help about 60 at-risk kids improve their math and reading skills, concluding each session with a story drawn from the Bible. "We're part of the Parkview family," says Till, who calls to mind an affable uncle. "They know exactly what it is we're doing."

What these religious organizations are doing, in fact, is demolishing mistaken assumptions about the separation of church and state--while respecting their constitutional limits. After decades of isolation and suspicion, faith-based groups nationwide are teaming up with government to confront social ills ranging from welfare dependence to failing schools. Agreements are being struck that enlist the active support of government, yet zealously guard the independence of the faithful. "Some officials still look askance at anyone who quotes the Bible," says Marvin Olasky, a University of Texas professor whose books helped propel federal welfare reform. "But many are desperate enough to approve anything that works." Although operating below the radar of the social-service establishment, these partnerships could help redefine the nation's culture of caregiving.

God and Caesar

Until recently, there appeared to be only two roads for people of faith eager to help the needy: scorn government as a useless annoyance or become paid agents of the secular, administrative state. To be sure, anti-religious legal dogma has scared countless charitable groups away. Yet many cannot resist government largesse, and quickly join those social-service providers already awash in public funding. In Boston, Catholic Charities gets about 65 percent of its budget from state and federal sources. For Lutheran Social Services in New York, the figure is about 80 percent.

Government funding, however, invites government regulation. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that the state can subsidize religious charities so long as they are not, in the words of the Court, "pervasively sectarian." This means groups must excise expressions of faith, such as prayer and proselytizing, from their taxpayer-funded programs. Many of them barely retain any distinctive religious identity.

Hence a new via media in church-state relations: charitable groups that shun Caesar's coin but not Caesar's cooperation. A growing company of religious providers are willing to accept the state's administrative and moral support but forgo its money and oversight. That allows them to tread on secular turf with a message that is, at its heart, religious.

At the same time, deals are being hammered out that satisfy secularists as well as sectarians. Programs contain blunt appeals to moral and spiritual renewal, yet participants are free to opt out. State officials can steer people toward church-based assistance, so long as they offer secular alternatives. Ministers may proselytize clients of government agencies, but not with public money and usually not on public property.

Remarkably, government officials are among those most determined to involve faith communities. Mississippi governor Kirk Fordice was one of the first to challenge churches to help welfare families, and his efforts are being duplicated in at least half a dozen other states. Texas governor George Bush is cutting state regulations that hinder religious groups involved in social services (see box, page 35). Indianapolis mayor Stephen Goldsmith has created a "Front Porch Alliance" in which government agencies brainstorm ways to engage congregations in community renewal.

"There are far greater threats to our inner-city children than religion," Goldsmith says. "In many of our most troubled neighborhoods, clearly the most important asset is the church."

Back to School

Nowhere is that maxim more visible than in the perennial powder keg of church-state conflicts, the public schools. John Dewey, the principal architect of public education in 20th-century America, argued that schools should erase the supposedly irrational religious influence of parents on their children. And thanks to a generation of muddled court rulings on religion, educators inhale Dewey's anti-religious bias like oxygen.

"They have received a long civics lesson from extreme separationists," says Steven McFarland of the Christian Legal Society. The result, he says, is that "school districts consider involving churches as a last resort."

But Dewey's moment may be passing. Mounting failures in student discipline and academic performance are leaving school administrators hungry for new approaches. In surprisingly large numbers, schools are inviting religious groups back into the classroom. Asked to serve as tutors and aides, church volunteers are bringing with them their faith and the value system it inspires.

That's exactly what many officials are hoping for, as long as religious folk tread gingerly in the secular schoolhouse. In both informal and written agreements, church volunteers are expected to be role models in class and on the playground. They can talk about values and offer advice. And they may invite children to religious activities, so long as parents are notified.

"Religious groups have a lot to offer, and no one is saying they shouldn't help out and run these programs," says Rob Boston of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. "There are ways that this can be done consistent with the First Amendment." More and more school districts around the nation are putting this thesis to the test.

In the Topeka Unified School District in Kansas, assistant superintendent Robert McFrazier held a meeting two years ago with 13 black pastors to see what they could do to reduce students' dropout and detention rates. He called on church leaders to enlist members as tutors and teachers' aides. He also asked congregations to make their facilities available for after-school help. The plan: Do everything possible to get more people of faith personally involved in the lives of low-income kids.

"I was fully aware of the ramifications of church-state entanglement," McFrazier says. "But we had a problem: How do we get our kids the help they need beyond the conventional school day?" So far eight congregations have responded, with no objections from local civil-liberties groups.

Pushing the Envelope

The Philadelphia school district recently hosted a luncheon for about a hundred religious leaders to help launch Project 10,000, a campaign to recruit classroom aides. "We are specifically asking churches to recruit people," says Joseph Meade, the project's director. "There is such a sense of crisis in the city that responsible leaders are looking for partnerships wherever they can be found."

Principals now meet regularly with church leaders to coordinate the effort. Volunteers are doing everything from helping with homework to monitoring cafeterias and playgrounds. School officials privately hope they will do even more.

"Schools have an obligation to address moral questions," says Philadelphia school superintendent David Hornbeck. "They can more powerfully do that if there's a link with churches and synagogues." Meade agrees: "Frankly, what we're really trying to do, in addition to boosting achievement, is to get mature adults mentoring our young people, presenting positive role models."

"Religious groups have a lot to offer," says a civil libertarian. "There are ways that this can be done consistant with the First Amendment."

Hornbeck preaches church-state cooperation--literally. An ordained Presbyterian minister, he delivers sermons once a month at churches around the city, blending biblical references with an appeal to get involved in public education. "I'm a lawyer and I have two divinity degrees, so I take the First Amendment very seriously," he explains. "In no way should it prohibit or inhibit partnerships between faith communities and schools."

Officials of the Chicago school district, one of the nation's largest and most troubled, are coming to the same conclusion. Following school-related violence last year, the district held talks with religious leaders and sought legal advice on brokering a formal partnership between school and church. They hope to start mentoring programs, create "safe places" for troubled youth, and lease church space for classrooms. In an early draft of district guidelines, officials acknowledge the risks of partnership, but insist that "these difficulties are not insurmountable."

Not long ago, that conclusion would have been unthinkable. Schools today are not only welcoming religious groups into class to assist teachers, but some have found permanent office space at school for them to operate. Others advertise church events to help volunteers connect with kids outside the classroom.

At Parkview Elementary in D.C., Jim Till works out of a basement office, where he is often seen coaching one or two delinquent kids as his "helpers" for the day. Church-based volunteers from STEP (Strategies to Elevate People) tutor weekly at Parkview. Most form friendships with children after hours through Bible clubs, church socials, and other events. "The system is broken and people are waiting for someone to come fix it," Till says. "Instead of taking our children out, it's time to get more involved in public education." Assistant principal Wendy Edwards agrees: "We have 531 kids at Parkview, mostly from public-assistance families. If we had 531 mentors, that would be fantastic."

Martin Luther King Elementary School in Wilmington, Delaware, serves a student population that is mostly fatherless and living in public housing. The school recently invited Younglife, a national, Christian-based mentoring effort, to run an on-site program for latchkey kids. Adults meet weekly with children to motivate them before class. Five days a week they hold after-school enrichment programs, including sports, music, recreation, and the arts.

Though Younglife volunteers "can't come in and preach about salvation," says principal Angela Guy, "we expect them to be positive role models." With a weightiness falling somewhere between Barney and the Bible, afternoon storytelling might impart lessons about courage, respect, or honesty. "We're still finding out what our boundaries are," says Younglife director Charles Harris. "But we're trying to get kids away from so much that is negative around them."

Younglife is targeting about 60 children this fall, but officials hope to find mentors for the majority of the school's 350 students. Says Guy, "We've told them our door is open."

The Friendship Factor

One of the most aggressive efforts to mobilize churches in the public schools is Michigan-based Kids Hope USA. About 720 adult tutors from 37 congregations now meet at least an hour a week with kids from 35 elementary schools, with more schools on a waiting list.

Founder Virgil Gulker, a maverick in church-based social outreach, disdains fuzzy thinking on both sides of the church-state divide. "My grievance with so many government initiatives is they seem to assume that the only thing children need is a computer," he says. "Our kids are like emotional checkbooks who are completely overdrawn."

Declining student performance, of course, often results from family breakdown, an issue best addressed by faith communities. Most congregations, however, have kept clear of public schools because they assumed that involvement was illegal or impossible, Gulker says. Whatever assistance they do offer--painting classrooms, purchasing supplies--overlooks more fundamental problems. "Most churches offer programs rather than relationships," he says. "The church needs to do what it does best, which is to love." School officials seem to agree: They say the friendships formed between tutors, children, and their families are the key to better performance, especially among at-risk kids.

The focus on relationship-building is driving one of the most carefully scripted arrangements between religious groups and public education in the nation. Each Kids Hope congregation must hire a part-time person to coordinate and train volunteers, sign an agreement with participating schools, and direct its pastor to help tutor. Church volunteers not only get training in mentoring skills; they are also drilled in the ground rules for sharing their faith.

First, parental authority is supreme. Volunteers must get a parent's permission to initiate any contact with children. Moreover, parents are always told the content of church-sponsored events. "There are no surprises here," says Gulker. "At no time under any circumstances is that ever violated." Second, no proselytizing is allowed at school. Volunteers may invite children to church activities in which evangelism occurs, but must always alert parents first.

"I want to protect the churches' opportunity to evangelize off campus," Gulker explains, "but part of protecting that right means protecting the policy of no evangelism at schools." That seems consistent with concerns of civil libertarians. "We have to be sensitive to the rights of parents," says Rob Boston of Americans United. "Parents want to be the ones to determine what religious views their children are exposed to."

Legal experts know of no serious court challenges to church-based tutors. Yet some add a caveat: Public schools must not give preferential access to religious groups. A Decatur, Indiana, school tried that last year with a clergy-run counseling program and was stopped by the ACLU. A similar counseling effort is being challenged in a Beaumont, Texas, school. "If there's a mentoring program and a mentor belongs to a church, he's not precluded from participating. That's easy," says Marc Stern, a lawyer with the American Jewish Congress in New York. "But clearly preferential access is unconstitutional."

Dave Irwin, the principal of Alger Park Elementary in Grand Rapids, Michigan, says he's not limiting the access of other groups; it's just that the church two blocks away is the only one sending him mentors. "Here's an organized group of people who are trained to assist us, who bring a willingness to serve," he says. "We don't get that support from the community at large. We don't have people breaking down our door to help us."

Defusing the Crime Bomb

Princeton University criminologist John DiIulio proposes a thought experiment when he lectures on inner-city crime. Imagine, he says, you're driving alone at night through a blighted urban neighborhood. Your car is about to break down, but your guardian angel will allow you to choose one of three places for your car to die. Choice number one: in front of a movie theater where a teen slasher film is about to let out. Choice number two: outside a go-go bar serving malt liquor to underage drinkers. Choice number three: in front of a church resounding with the voices of the youth choir. "Naturally, you're praying for number three," he says. "You simply suppose that people involved with religious institutions are less likely to do you harm."

According to DiIulio, the best social-science research confirms what common sense suggests: Active religious congregations are a critical factor in reducing violence and stabilizing inner-city neighborhoods. A 1991 study published by the National Bureau of Economic Research, for example, found that urban youth whose neighbors attend church are more likely to have a job and less likely to use drugs or commit crime.

This fact is slowly insinuating itself into local crime-fighting strategies. Police are turning to clergy as the eyes and ears of their neighborhoods. Judges and prosecutors are diverting criminals from jail into church-based programs. Ministers and volunteers are invading prisons and bringing a tough-love gospel with them. In all this activity, church and state share at least one goal: lower crime rates through moral rehabilitation. Their challenge is to balance the coercive power of government with respect for offenders' religious beliefs--or lack of them.

Many of these efforts target juvenile offenders. The Reverend Tony Evans of Oak Cliff Bible Fellowship in Dallas, one of the largest churches in the city, tells the story of a teenager known to the church who was arrested and faced jail time. Oak Cliff ministers intervened on his behalf, persuading a judge to release the boy to them. He gave them six months to turn the young man around.

The ministers got busy. They talked with his parents and his probation officer. They paired him with a mentor and enrolled him in Bible studies and other church activities. Six months later, after the boy had landed a job and returned to school, Evans went back to court. The judge asked him, "Will you take 20 more?"

Oak Cliff now works with about 80 juveniles, all court-involved, in its "Teen Turnaround" effort. "We teach, preach, and practice transformation," says the Reverend LaFayette Holland, an outreach pastor. "That's what everyone is really looking for."

In Indiana, the Marion County juvenile court sends troubled kids to the Indianapolis Training Center (ITC), a Christian-based alternative to state detention centers. The one-year residential program matches 12- to 18-year-olds with a mentor family and volunteers from local high schools. Although not a lock-down facility, the ITC leaves little time for mischief. Residents are up at 5:30 a.m., usually reading from Proverbs, the Old Testament book stuffed with sound-bite advice on honesty, hard work, and holiness. Mornings are spent doing chores, afternoons studying, and evenings playing sports.

County officials overcame early objections by making sure parents and children understand the regimen. "We will not order anybody into it, but once they choose it, they are ordered to follow through," says Brian Toepp, the county's assistant chief of probation. Moreover, by accepting only private money, ITC is free to immerse its residents in Christian teaching. "We're trying to teach them character," says director Benny McWha, "and we believe character is based on biblical principles."

Last fall, juvenile court judge Jim Payne met with leading ministers and asked them to get more involved with troubled youth and their families. Westside Community Ministries, a coalition of about 35 churches and religious groups, has emerged to offer community-service work, faith-based counseling, and other services. "Everything we do with them is an excuse to build a relationship," says the Reverend Jay Height, the executive director of Shepherd Community Church. Payne brushes aside the argument that government should not endorse faith-based efforts to reduce crime. "This is not an issue of [government] proselytizing," Payne says. "As long as people understand the difference, they've made the choice, I haven't." Though courts can order families to seek counseling, for example, they may choose between Westside or secular programs.

There are many reasons for the state's willingness to try religious approaches. In Marion County one of them is sheer numbers: Each year the court system sees 10,000 youths and families, far too many for state-paid counselors or probation officers to track. "We have this untapped resource in almost every corner of every neighborhood," Payne says. "But we have virtually excluded churches from the service-delivery system."

No one in Indianapolis makes that point more convincingly than Mayor Stephen Goldsmith. With a lawyer's steely logic, the former prosecutor explains why secular government cannot afford to ignore, much less harass, religious communities. "Only hardened skeptics have trouble accepting that widespread belief in a Supreme Being improves the strength and health of our communities," he says. "Government can accomplish more by working with faith-based groups than it can ever achieve by circumventing them."

Goldsmith's Front Porch Alliance, what he calls a "civic switchboard," probably reigns as the national leader in this regard (see box, page 32). In just a few years, the Alliance has developed nearly 600 partnerships while working with more than 150 churches and other value-shaping groups. It also sets up workshops for civic leaders, giving them technical assistance for navigating local bureaucracies or tapping into community resources.

The Boston Crusade

A recent Newsweek cover story celebrated perhaps the most successful example of faith-based crime-fighting anywhere: Boston's Ten Point Coalition. Led by the iconoclastic Reverend Eugene Rivers, a cadre of urban churches began working with police, judges, and prosecutors in 1993 to tackle the problem of youth violence. After Boston went two years without a single gun-related homicide among teens, even national magazines such as the New Yorker started to take notice. "You couldn't function effectively without the ministers in Boston," former Boston police commissioner William Bratton told the magazine. "Those churches and leaders like Gene Rivers were a very significant reason for our success."

Fifty-four churches in Boston now devote staff and volunteer manpower to the effort, sometimes walking neighborhoods at night or doing street outreach to gang members. Pastors double as legal advocates, helping youth negotiate the court system. Teens on probation attend church-based summer camps.

The coalition also runs a groundbreaking fatherhood program, and at least 11 court jurisdictions in Massachusetts send offenders into its 12-week classes. These are men who need more than a pep talk in good fathering: The most recent group of 80 program graduates had been convicted of 544 separate offenses. Most had been charged with a violent crime. Fifty-three percent had committed domestic violence. And most did not live with their children.

Police have no hard numbers on recidivism rates, but say that 65 percent of the men finish the program, which means they comply with probation rules, abstain from drugs, and make restitution to their victims. About 300 have graduated since 1993, and most have claimed paternity or are taking steps to do so, says Milton Britton, the state's chief probation officer.

Each two-hour class is a model for negotiating First Amendment pitfalls. Instruction is deliberately held in local churches. "I've been in law enforcement for 30 years," Britton says. "If you take out the church, the moral and spiritual thing, it ain't gonna work." Offenders are not ordered into the program, but to encourage them to sign up, judges often waive probation fees. "We won't take someone into the fatherhood program and ask them to worship in that church," says Bernard Fitzgerald, the chief probation officer of Dorchester District Court. "But we are going to try to instill in them a sense of what fatherhood is."

Instructors go about this the old-fashioned way, with a mix of summons and shame. "It's better than a therapy session," says Judge Kathleen Coffey. "It offers men a moral compass, and it teaches them about personal responsibility. I send people there all the time." Pastors and probation officers take turns pounding home five principles of fatherhood: Give guidance to children, show them affection, show respect to the children's mother, provide financial support, and set an example by living within the law.

Clergymen are free to incorporate Scripture. "I'm not dogmatic in presenting the gospel," says the Reverend Roland Hayes Robinson of Bethel AME Church. "But Christian principle is implicit in the way I promote respect for women, highlight the benefits of fatherhood, and reflect on our individual purpose for being alive."

The God Pod

Prison Fellowship's invasion of a Texas prison surely ranks as one of the nation's most audacious experiments in criminal rehabilitation. The program, called Innerchange, is run inside the belly of a state correctional facility. Program staff have 24-hour access to inmates in one wing of the prison, and oversee virtually all day-to-day activities there. Participants need not claim a Christian faith, but must agree to a "Bible-based, Christ-centered" program. Although inmates are allowed to pursue their own religious beliefs (some attend weekly Islamic services), the explicit goal is Christian conversion.

Chaplains have always worked in prisons, of course, but never as comprehensively as Innerchange staff. Says senior warden Fred Becker, "It's the difference between being in church on Sunday and practically being in seminary."

"I've been in law enforcement for 30 years," says one probation official. "If you take out the church, the moral and spiritual thing, it ain't gonna work."

Prison Fellowship may have designed a lawsuit-proof approach to getting God into the nation's prison system: The program is funded purely from private sources, is completely voluntary, has no effect on participants' length of parole, and does not discriminate on the basis of religion. "Anytime you start spending public money on religious activity, it becomes suspect," says Jay Jacobson, the executive director of the ACLU in Texas. "But we don't have an objection to religious activity in prisons that is voluntary and not paid for out of public coffers." Carol Vance, the former chairman of the Texas Board of Criminal Justice and an early supporter, predicts, "We will not have any serious constitutional challenge."

Innerchange staffers, however, don't take government benevolence on faith. "It concerns me every day," says Jack Cowley, the program director and a former warden himself. "We have to advocate for our program and remind them that we're here to do God's work. We've got to do it our way."

The program won a major concession on the issue of inmate visitation. A federal court order stipulates that inmates are entitled to only one visit per weekend, by a maximum of two adults. That posed a problem, since Innerchange depends on volunteer mentors to develop strong ties to prisoners. But Jester II officials persuaded the Texas Department of Criminal Justice to designate the volunteers as adjunct staff members, not visitors, and therefore not subject to the federal rule.

About 200 church volunteers now work with 130 inmates and parolees in the 18-month regimen. Early results are impressive: Of the 26 ex-offenders who have completed the program, all have jobs and are involved in local churches. There are already plans to duplicate the effort in Kansas and Iowa this year. "We want to be in every state and federal prison in the country," says Prison Fellowship president Thomas Pratt, "building the church inside prison walls."

A Welfare Revolution

Informal agreements between churches and city hall traditionally characterized efforts to help America's poor, until they were eclipsed by the modern welfare state. "Many lives can be saved if we recapture the vision that changed lives up to a century ago, when our concept of compassion was not so corrupt," writes Olasky in The Tragedy of American Compassion (1992). The Welfare Reform Act of 1996, which ended the guarantee of federal aid to the poor, may be a step back to the future.

Leon Love, the deputy director of South Carolina's DSS, is unusually frank about his agency's failed welfare policies. "We used to build barriers to prevent churches from participating. We hid behind confidentiality," he says. "But people on the road to self-sufficiency must believe they can get there, and to put a person in the company of believers is powerful."

In no other area of social policy has the shift in conventional wisdom been more dramatic. Welfare offices are being renamed "family independence agencies." Eligibility experts are scrambling to help recipients find jobs. And congregations are being invited--sometimes begged--to lend a hand.

Governments are turning to religious groups for help in part because they must meet state-imposed deadlines for terminating assistance. But surely the deeper reason is the disastrous failure of welfare to lead families out of poverty. This is especially true for the "hard cases": young mothers with no self-respect, no high-school diploma, and no work history. These are the families whose problems cannot be solved by a booming economy.

Nor, it should be added, by government caseworkers, who spend perhaps an hour a month with welfare recipients. Unraveling the practical and moral problems of these families simply cannot be done on the cheap. "We can do some of that, but we're limited, because we're primarily eligibility specialists," says Elizabeth Seale of the Texas Department of Human Services.

Enter the faith community. "It appears that only churches are willing to make the long-term volunteer investment required," writes Amy Sherman, author of Restorers of Hope: Reaching the Poor in Your Community with Church-Based Ministries That Work (1997) and a leading welfare-reform specialist. Thousands of congregations around the country are working closely with welfare families, helping them find jobs, lending emotional support, assisting with child care, and helping with budgeting and even grocery shopping.

It can be labor-intensive work: Churches in Anne Arundel County, Maryland, for example, report that over a six-month period they log an average of 400 hours per family. And not all of that time is spent holding hands: Career counseling usually comes with biblical teachings about work and family responsibilities, placing new moral demands on the poor.

In Texas, Lutheran Social Services (LSS) has signed a "memorandum of understanding" with the state's Department of Human Services to help already-employed families stay off the dole. With the state's blessing, the LSS is training its volunteers in a program of "comprehensive spiritual care." Volunteers make a one-year commitment as mentors, helping with transportation, budgeting, and other issues. "The state is realizing there's a piece they are missing that they can't fill," says LSS president Kurt Senske. "It's a good marriage."

In California, a welfare-reform law went into effect on January 1, 1998, requiring thousands of recipients to exit welfare by December 2002. A month later, Fresno mayor Jim Patterson--himself an active member of Evangelicals for Social Action--called together religious and civic leaders. The goal: jump-start a partnership between churches (mostly evangelical) and the Merced County welfare office. The reason: The county supports 8,000 people on public assistance and, with 15 percent unemployment, can't possibly find all of them jobs. So for starters, county officials want businessmen in congregations to hire and train welfare moms.

Churches are also being asked to make their facilities available for child care. Sunday-school classes for children are OK, as long as families can opt out. Either way, church members are expected to get personally involved in the lives of welfare recipients. Says Paul Lundberg, who is coordinating the effort, "A state official told me that if there were a law against what we're doing, he would ignore the law, because they need us so badly."

Building Safeguards

States are designing partnerships with congregations that are keeping litigators at bay. For example, no information on welfare recipients is released to churches without their consent. Families must agree to any relationship with a congregation and are never obligated to attend services or church events. State money almost never flows directly to churches, and public assistance usually continues until recipients are independent. "So long as individuals may freely choose religion, merely enabling private decisions logically cannot be a government establishment of religion," writes Carl Esbeck, a law professor at the University of Missouri and a leading authority on the legality of government collaboration with religious groups.

An early model was the Mississippi initiative, in which the governor used his bully pulpit to get churches involved with the poor. "God, not government, will be the savior of welfare families," Fordice told an assembly of religious leaders at the state capitol in 1995, launching his Faith and Families project.

The state's Department of Human Services (DHS) works directly with local congregations, matching them with willing families. Church volunteers serve as spiritual social workers, focusing not on securing more government benefits, but on helping families acquire the habits that lead to long-term independence.

Church response to the governor's appeal so far has been modest. "We thought we could be the catalyst between state government, the clients, and the faith community," says Donald Taylor, the executive director of Mississippi's DHS. "But the reception we got in some quarters, quite frankly, was disappointing."

There are at least two snags to this top-down approach. First, state employees typically don't warm to volunteers who lack degrees in social work and threaten their jobs. "I have many individuals in my agency who think churches shouldn't be involved," says a veteran in government welfare services. "They're a threat. It becomes a union issue."

Second, the Mississippi model fails to allay long-held suspicions that any government entanglement amounts to a pact with the devil. Conservative churches in Maryland, for example, did not even show up when the state held a hearing on revolutionizing welfare.

A more nuanced policy is being hammered out in other states. In South Carolina, Governor Beasley's nonprofit group is the engine for change. The Putting Families First Foundation is building a statewide database of organizations willing to offer help, while working with the DSS to match those groups with families. It also teaches church workers about protecting confidentiality and integrating faith in their caregiving, among other issues.

Putting Families First is incorporated as a religious nonprofit, and its director, Lisa Van Riper, is a committed Christian--facts not lost on conservative congregations. "Lisa can go out and preach self-sufficiency and the ministry role of the church in a much more forthright way than can a bureaucrat," says Leon Love. "It has much more of an impact on the recruitment process." Van Riper has brought her seminar to about 500 churches and synagogues. Figures for church involvement are not available, but about 160 welfare moms are in the program.

A similar effort is underway in Michigan, where Governor John Engler's welfare reforms have slashed caseloads. Ottawa County became the first locality in the nation to move every able-bodied welfare recipient into a job. It was one of six sites in the governor's Project Zero, chosen specifically because of its extensive church network.

State officials give much of the credit to the Good Samaritan Center, a church-based nonprofit that recruits and trains church volunteers to support families moving from welfare to work. Within six months of being approached by Engler, Good Samaritan had enlisted nearly 60 churches, or about 25 percent of the county's total. "Determining eligibility--that we do well. We're not very good at wrapping our arms around a family," says Loren Snippe, who oversaw the Ottawa effort. "Church volunteers bring the ability to have a long-term relationship. You can't pay people to do this."

By serving as honest brokers between church and state, the nonprofits in Michigan and South Carolina can help maintain a stable partnership even as state and local governments change hands. "The churches need someone they can trust, who knows their internal culture," says Bill Raymond, a former director of Good Samaritan. "But you also need an independent actor who knows how to engage the powers that be."

Another advantage of the nonprofit model is that it guards the independence of churches as they reach out to the welfare families. The nonprofit's job is to ensure a good match between welfare recipients and congregations; government's role is confined mostly to writing checks and sharing client information. "It's not a government program," Van Riper says. "If the church and a client want to talk about faith, they can do it because it is a private relationship."

Reclaiming Compassion

All of this activity, though significant, is occurring in a legal and political culture that, in the words of Yale law professor Stephen Carter, "trivializes religious devotion." Many liberals still treat serious religious belief more as a threat than a cure to the nation's social ills. Writing last year in the American Prospect, Wendy Kaminer called these partnerships an "unholy alliance," suggesting they are part of a larger campaign "to align public policies with majoritarian religious practices and ideals."

Too many government officials see the same dark conspiracies. A few years ago, Indianapolis mayor Goldsmith asked churches to participate in a summer job-training program. At the end of the summer, the state of Indiana cited the city as "out of compliance" with a state law barring the use of funds for religious purposes. The reason: Participants voluntarily prayed before meals and field trips.

Many in government, however, are unpersuaded by the yowling of liberal legalists. "We have a common goal," says Milton Britton, the chief probation officer of Massachusetts. "We're trying to improve the quality of life for our communities. When you bring the moral perspective, the anchor that prevents you from falling off the edge, it makes a difference."

Until the onset of the modern welfare state, the decisive power of faith to curb evil and inspire charity was taken for granted. Even French philosopher Voltaire, a relentless critic of Christianity, argued that societies would collapse into disorder without some type of rational religion. "I want my attorney, my tailor, my servants, even my wife to believe in God," he said, "and I think that then I shall be robbed and cuckolded less often."

Ironically, it is the welfare bureaucracy's moral collapse that has lawmakers and others taking another look at the faith community. The "charitable choice" provision of the federal welfare law, after all, was designed to boost involvement of religious charities in fighting poverty. The law prohibits government from undermining the religious commitments of groups taking federal funds. It has not been tested in the courts, however, and many providers still seem wary of state entanglement.

Meanwhile, many believers stand ready to help where government has failed, if only government were willing to make room for them. "We have people who feel it's their obligation before God to care for the poor," says Van Riper of Putting Families First. "They're organized, they're in the working community, and they have all the resources necessary. The little boy who brought the basket of fish to the disciples was not a Ph.D. nutritionist."

Until the onset of the modern welfare state, the decisive power of faith to curb evil and inspire charity was taken for granted.

Religious believers and broad-minded lawmakers are ratifying an old precept of American civic life: that collaboration between church and state need not lead to corruption. They are steering their way around those who fret over a lunchtime prayer, as well as those who would trade their souls for a government contract. And they follow Goldsmith's golden rule of government: "We will never ask an organization to change any of its core values in order to participate in a relationship with us."

With that rule to guide them--and with a little faith, hope, and charity--they might just reclaim and sanctify the compassionate impulses of a new generation of caregivers.

Joseph Loconte is the William E. Simon Fellow in Religion and a Free Society at the Heritage Foundation and editor of the forthcoming book, The End of Illusions: America's Churches and Hitler's Gathering Storm.

About the Author

Joseph Loconte William E. Simon Fellow in Religion and a Free Society

First appeared in "Policy Review"