May 22, 2001 | Commentary on Religion and Civil Society, Civil Society

The Right's Doubting Thomases are Wrong

The initiative to promote and finance faith-based charities -- given fresh impetus by George W. Bush on Sunday in his commencement address at Notre Dame -- has been taking flak from the president's allies. National Review editors call the plan "a pipe dream." The libertarian Cato Institute pans the idea. Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention says he "wouldn't touch the money with the proverbial ten-foot pole." They worry about government's corrosive effect on religion.

Dangers always arise when church and state collaborate. But it is hard to recall when political leadership was more inclined to rewrite the tired script of sacred-secular dogfights. The White House strategy is to marshal public and private resources -- through tax incentives, deregulation, and expanded freedoms for religious charities -- to increase the reach of charitable groups helping the needy. It is the third component, extending the protections of the 1996 Charitable Choice law, which has stirred a hornet's nest. The law allows religious organizations to compete alongside secular providers for federal antipoverty funds, without having to dilute their spiritual mission.

Liberals seem to understand what is at stake better than some conservatives do. It isn't money. The president's plan would make federal dollars available for faith-based fatherhood programs, maternity group homes, and mentoring for the children of prisoners. That would help inner-city ministries previously shunned by government or overlooked by private donors. For the children at risk of slipping into poverty or violence -- the prime beneficiaries of church-based urban outreach -- that's important. But federal help would amount to a fraction of the roughly $90 billion donated each year to churches and religious charities.

What's at stake is something larger: the false assumption that religious belief carries no advantage over unbelief in tackling social problems. Indeed, the bias against religiously informed values, so deeply entrenched in social services, cannot be uprooted without political muscle. A study last year by the Center for Public Justice, for example, revealed that most states are ignoring the Charitable Choice law. They continue to exclude most faith-based organizations from their social-service regime, while those allowed in must wipe clean any trace of religious belief.

Meanwhile, government showers its favor on programs that soft-pedal personal responsibility and remain tone deaf to spiritual matters. The results are homeless shelters with no work requirements, after-school programs that teach "self esteem" but not character, family services that ignore marriage, and drug treatment that substitutes one addiction for another.

Using federal legislation to create a level playing field for religious charities sends a message: Government may not discriminate against groups just because they are guided by their belief in God as they help their neighbors. They are community paramedics, not civic pariahs. By protecting their right to control the "definition, development, practice and expression" of their religious beliefs, Charitable Choice enshrines this insight into law and public policy.

The White House initiative is already creating momentum for church and state to work together for the public good. Over the last few months, for example, officials at corrections departments from Michigan, New Mexico, and Nebraska have called on Prison Fellowship to involve congregations in the lives of inmates and ex-offenders. In Chicago, over 300 congregations are sending volunteers into public schools to offer after-school programs and safe havens.

In Kansas City, Mo., Urban Campus Ministries is expanding its summer reading program to reach hundreds of high-poverty children stuck in a failing public school system. In Philadelphia, Mayor John Street set up an office to negotiate agreements with congregations. In less than six months they have mobilized over 600 mentors to at-risk youth, effectively doubling the size of the city's Big Brother/Big Sister program.

This slow cooling of church-state hostility cannot be understood except as a consequence of the change in law toward religious agencies, as well as of Mr. Bush's use of the bully pulpit on their behalf. But some conservatives see only a slippery slope to another Great Society boondoggle, greased with a little God-talk. They worry that dependence on government will sap church-based groups of their creative and moral energy.

Certainly, there are risks. The deepest danger is that government seduces the charitable impulse, while secularizing the efforts of the faithful. But recent experience shows that faith-based groups can learn to negotiate government support, keep their spiritual bearings, and respect the First Amendment.

Private agencies such as the evangelical Bowery Mission in New York know how to set up separate nonprofits to handle public funds, yet maintain their independence. The Bowery program for homeless drug addicts -- fully funded by the city -- is ranked Manhattan's most effective in getting men sober, employed, and off government assistance.

Under the Bush plan, religious organizations could compete for federal money via grants, vouchers, or tax support for charitable donations. Critics are right to argue that some forms of government aid pose more problems than others do, and that private funds are best of all. There is room for a warning about the dangers of accepting Caesar's coin. But fears are no excuse for fatalism.

The key to protecting the independence and vitality of these groups may have less to do with their source of funding than with the quality of their faith. Boston University's Charles Glenn, after surveying scores of religious schools and charities, concluded that they can work successfully with government if they have a committed staff, a clear sense of mission, and a board of advisors who act as sentries. Without that, they face the more subtle danger of self-betrayal.

There is no denying that, as government opens its doors to religion, believers must know when to enter and when to withdraw. They must learn to be "as shrewd as snakes, but innocent as doves." Some will fail. But surely that Biblical warning was meant for life outside the safety zone of the sanctuary. If heeded, it could challenge the system of demoralized social assistance and point the way to one that is more hopeful, humane, and -- ultimately -- redemptive.

Joseph Loconteis William E. Simon Fellow in Religion and a Free Society at The Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

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

Originally published in The Wall Street Journal (05/22/01)