In a way no one anticipated, George W. Bush has shifted the national debate about the role of religion in American life. For nearly twenty-five years, conservative Christians have focused on a politics of protest. Abortion, homosexuality, pornography, de-moralized public schools-these and other issues have defined the public face of religious conservatives.
Now, thanks largely to the President's faith-based initiative, a fuller portrait of the faithful is emerging. Moved by his own experience of faith in tackling a drinking problem, Bush has sought to create more civic space for religious ministries helping the poorest of the poor. "Starting now," Bush said in announcing his agenda, "the federal government is adopting a new attitude to honor and not restrict faith-based and community initiatives." The result: religious charities are regularly invited to congressional hearings, get frequent presidential visits, enjoy lots of favorable media, and are the hottest topic at conferences on religion in America.
Along the way, the tired script of church-state dogfights is being rewritten. The President is much less interested in religious conservatives as fiery prophets than as Good Samaritans; he would rather see them take over soup kitchens than storm the Supreme Court. For civic-minded Christians, the Bush approach is double-edged: it creates more opportunities for the Church to serve neighbors in need, but it also increases pressures to compromise the faith in order to join hands with government.
Those pressures have been on vivid display in the most contested part of the President's agenda, that of making government money widely available to churches and religious groups providing social services. Liberals worry about religious influence in government, while many conservatives fear the opposite. Meanwhile, partisan bickering has taken the initiative into some troubled waters. Last summer the House of Representatives passed a bill with tough religious-freedom protections for charities taking federal funds, though with puny incentives to boost private giving. A Senate bill, introduced in February and hailed as a compromise, is still being debated. It offers just the opposite of the House package: strong tax incentives to support charitable groups, but little to defend religious organizations from government meddling. The fate of the legislation is anyone's guess.
Some lessons from this debate, however, are clear. One is that the secular dogma guiding social welfare programs can and must be overturned. This is the hardest task facing the White House, yet the failure of government programs to face the moral and spiritual dimensions of poverty, drug use, and family disintegration can no longer be ignored. The President sent the right message when he appointed John DiIulio, a leading academic researcher into the potency of church-based ministries, to head his Office of Faith-based and Community Initiatives. When doubters maligned the initiative as "untested" and "risky," DiIulio delivered the perfect rebuttal: "We already know more of a scientific nature about the extent and efficacy of these programs than the architects of the Great Society ever did when they launched their big-government initiatives in the 1960s."
Defenders of the welfare state resist this argument with every breath. House Democrats fought intensely last year over how-and whether-to allow voluntary religious activity in government-funded programs. One got the sense that, apart from any First Amendment concerns, critics couldn't fathom how exposure to religious ideas or practices might help those in need. Social science researchers, who have done so much to shape public policy, seem equally baffled. A recent evaluation of more than four hundred studies of juvenile delinquency found that barely 10 percent even took religion into account. The reason, explains Harvard professor Theda Skopcol, is that the academic literature on social welfare policy is "so dominated by leftist secularists that it has written out of the record" the work of religious organizations.
The result is a human-services regime that is indifferent to matters of the heart. This judgment was driven home, for example, in interviews I conducted outside needle-exchange programs in New York City. The idea of such programs is to give clean needles to intravenous drug users to keep them from sharing syringes and getting AIDS. One patron, who gave his name as Walter, already had the disease. He was selling his free needles for drug money. Asked if he could imagine a life without heroin, he winced: "I'm past that. The only good thing I do is get high."
As applied to social services, this is the mischief of materialism: it lacks hope that people, with God's help, can change. No wonder, then, that the recipients of these programs stop hoping as well.
Yet common sense, not to mention the history of the Church's ministry to the poor, tells us that treating people with God-given dignity can make a decisive difference. Indeed, good research increasingly is making the case for faith commitment. Dozens of empirically grounded studies, for example, show that where religious institutions thrive, predatory street crime is less severe. Using data from the National Youth Survey, researchers Byron Johnson at the University of Pennsylvania and David Larson at Duke University Medical School found that, controlling for other variables, religious belief has a "consistent direct effect" on reducing delinquency. Though more research is needed, there is reason to expect similar conclusions about faith-based drug treatment, pregnancy prevention, and other programs. A faith-friendly White House can help set the record straight.
A second lesson from the fight over the President's initiative is that civil liberty and religious liberty must be defended together. The Senate bill now being considered requires "equal treatment" for all social service providers seeking government support. That's a milestone for government social policy. Nevertheless, the bill omits key religious liberty protections passed in the 1996 Welfare Reform law and approved by the House last year. The provisions, called "charitable choice," allow organizations receiving public funds to keep control over the "practice and expression" of their religious beliefs. The law also permits charities to use religion as a criterion for employment.
It was the latter provision that nearly derailed the legislation and forced the Senate compromise bill. Liberals, gay activists, and others assaulted the hiring protection as "federally funded discrimination" and claimed it would "turn back the clock" on civil rights. The Salvation Army even came under fire for allegedly offering the White House a quid pro quo: support of the Bush plan for federal exemptions from antidiscrimination laws that clash with Army rules against hiring homosexuals. One of the nation's most respected charities was vilified as a haven of intolerance.
The remarkable thing is that such open assaults on an independent civil society are now routine. No private organization-secular or religious-can preserve its freedom if it loses control over its fundamental mission. An organization's staff, of course, carries out that mission by embodying its deepest beliefs and values. That's as true for Planned Parenthood as it is for Prison Fellowship. Carl Esbeck, a Department of Justice official who helped draft charitable choice, put it aptly in testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee: "To bar a religious organization from hiring on a religious basis is to assail the very animating cause for which the organization was formed in the first place."
Nevertheless, even so-called New Democrats such as Senator Joseph Lieberman are citing civil rights legislation of the 1960s to complain about faith-based groups that discriminate in employment for religious reasons. Never mind that the 1964 Civil Rights Act specifically exempts religious bodies from antidiscrimination laws on the employment question. Never mind that the Supreme Court has upheld this right for private and religious institutions as a First Amendment protection. And never mind that there's something deeply offensive about comparing the inner life of America's churches and synagogues to the institutionalized racism of the Deep South, circa 1950.
The White House has adopted a strategy of silence on the question. This may have salvaged the legislative effort for now, but at what cost? The Boy Scouts-who meet in living rooms and take no government money-barely survived a recent Supreme Court challenge to their prohibition against gay Scoutmasters. The autonomy of religious institutions is no longer taken for granted, in part because of a failure to see the connection between religious and political liberty.
A final lesson of this debate is that the job of restoring religious belief as an engine of social renewal belongs primarily to forces outside Washington. True, the federal government funds and regulates most of the nation's social service programs, making systemic reform vital. But-apart from that Sisyphean task-there's a lot being done at the state and local level to legitimize and expand the redemptive work of the Church.
This may prove to be the greatest accomplishment of the Bush initiative: restoring civic trust between church and state. Over the last eighteen months, at least fourteen states have established offices to broker agreements between social service agencies and congregations. Bush's home state of Texas has moved the fastest, forging hundreds of partnerships with religious groups to help with everything from welfare-to-work programs to criminal rehabilitation. More than one hundred mayors have announced plans to launch similar offices in their own cities. In Philadelphia, for example, the former mayor personally appealed to religious leaders to create one of the nation's most ambitious mentoring programs for at-risk children. In less than six months, churches mobilized more than five hundred new mentors, doubling the existing Big Brother/Big Sister program. Much of this activity would have been unthinkable not long ago.
In an earlier era, however, it was all many citizens could think about; at its best, the Bush initiative recalls the philanthropic zeal of nineteenth-century moral reformers. Societies to overcome drunkenness and homelessness, the formation of common schools, campaigns against the forcible removal of native Americans, antislavery societies-nearly all were driven by private citizens who took seriously their Christian obligations to promote justice. Ministers such as Lyman Beecher made sure that social reform was one of the fruits of religious revivalism. Beecher argued that voluntary associations-free, vibrant, independent of government-should be "prepared to act upon every emergency, and repel every encroachment upon the liberties and morals of the state."
Here is a vision for Christian civic engagement that does not expect the Church to surrender her prophetic role in order to serve the common good. To borrow from the apostle Paul, a faith-based initiative that takes the Church's mind off things above won't do much good for the things below. "If you read history," wrote C. S. Lewis, "you will find that the Christians who did most for the present world were just those who thought most of the next." If the Church is no longer free to be the Church, the President's hope of mobilizing the "armies of compassion" will dissolve. It remains to be seen whether he and other leaders in government will use the tools of government-law, public policy, and the bully pulpit-to preserve their freedom and multiply their works of mercy and grace.
Joseph Loconte is the William E. Simon Fellow in Religion and a Free Society at the Heritage Foundation and a regular commentator on religion for National Public Radio.
Originally appeared in the May 2002 issue of FIRSTTHINGS