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The poor will always be with us. Yet, pace Cain, we have an obligation to look after our brothers. As we well know, poverty today is too often accompanied by social pathologies, deep corrupting vices, and a smoldering despair that Great Society welfare services do little to alleviate, and perhaps much to exacerbate. The welfare state provides money, food, shelter, education, medicine, even job training––the pathologies still remain. Even where a new breed of mayors and police chiefs seems to be getting crime under control, one gets the sense that in our poorest neighborhoods expensive policing is merely an external restraint on a culture that deep down respects the lawless and contemns the law. Reducing urban poverty involves changing that culture, and, most urgently, changing the hardened young men whose confidence and ill-gotten wealth make them objects of admiration and emulation. Changing the culture, then, means changing hearts as much as providing services, a task for which our welfare bureaucracies are, shall we say, poorly equipped.

Churches, though, are in the business of converting the hard of heart, and in our toughest neighborhoods they often are able to succeed where others have tried and failed. A growing number of church leaders, social scientists, policy analysts, and government officials want to find out why, and what can be done to make their efforts more effective. Many of them gathered at two recent conferences, one sponsored by the Center for Civic Innovation at New York’s Manhattan Institute last November, and the other by the Civitas Program in Faith and Public Affairs in January in Washington.

Those deep inside this conversation speak in a combination of euphemism and political jargon: poor and crime-ridden urban neighborhoods, no matter where they are located, are called the “inner cities” (midtown Manhattan does not qualify). People who act out of religious motives are “the faith community,” and their efforts to help others are “faith-based” programs. Where religious motivation is lacking or overtly religious language inappropriate, reference is made to “community programs” or “community outreach programs.” The institutions and organizations behind such programs can be of three kinds: “government-run,” “church-based,” or, if religiously motivated but not officially tied to one church or congregation, “faith-based.” Although nothing is ever “mosque-based” or “synagogue-based,” mosques and synagogues are mentioned enough to indicate that this approach is not intended to be restricted to Christians. Occasionally an evangelical will slip and distinguish between “Roman Catholics” and “Christians,” but most participants are ecumenically minded enough to purge their vocabulary of terms that might offend anyone on this politically, racially, and religiously charged issue. Although the lingo tends to make loving your neighbor sound like a military briefing, and can sometimes lead to sloppy generalizations (about which more later), I hope the reader will not mind the monotony if I take advantage of it as well.

The most important development for faith-based organizations (henceforth FBOs) is the passing of the Charitable Choice provision of the 1996 welfare reform act. Charitable choice requires state governments that receive federal block-grant welfare money to treat religious organizations just like any other private organization that receives such money, instead of discriminating against them simply because they involve religion. It used to be that if a church-run literacy program in Virginia taught people to read using the Bible, even if more of its graduates could read than those in less religious or nonreligious programs, the state of Virginia was not allowed to give the program any money. Under the new law, it probably would be illegal for Virginia not to fund the project. If the state wants to spend all the welfare money itself, it is allowed to do so. But if the state wants to contract out some of its services to nongovernment providers, it cannot prefer a nonreligious program over a religious program because of the latter’s religious character.

What’s more, there are very few strings attached to the money: The FBO can conduct its business as it likes so long as it provides services to those of all faiths and does not require its beneficiaries to participate actively in religious activities. The new law explicitly allows FBOs receiving government money to employ and hire only those with similar religious beliefs. The FBOs have found that this “discrimination” on the basis of religion has to be an option, or else taking government money would force them to become just another religiously neutral service provider, and would undermine the reason for their successes.

Dr. Stephen Monsma of Pepperdine University sees charitable choice as embodying a “substantive neutrality” theory of church-state relations, as opposed to the unworkable “no-aid” theory of Everson v. Board of Education (1947) and the heavily criticized “formal neutrality” theory of Employment Division v. Smith (1990). The older theory holds that the “wall of separation” between church and state forbids the government from funding any organization that is religious in character. Since it was obvious in the 1940s that religion was everywhere, the Supreme Court made a further distinction. Whenever the sacred and secular elements of an organization could be separated (e.g., a soup kitchen), the government could fund the secular part but not the religious part. But if the organization was “pervasively sectarian,” the government could not give it money without an unconstitutional establishment of religion.

Policing of FBO religious practices by the government is erratic. In his research Monsma found that FBOs receiving government aid variously display religious pictures, have a paid chaplain on staff, pray before meals, and encourage their clients to pray or make a specific religious commitment––all of which, the courts have ruled, officially qualify a program as “pervasively” religious. Monsma ranked the organizations on the basis of how many of these practices took place in their government-funded programs. He found that 28 percent of the most pervasively religious charities received most or all of their money from the government, while some others with a minimal religious atmosphere were told by government officials to change their practices. Judges and bureaucrats tend to look the other way with some FBOs, sometimes because they are too effective to close down, sometimes because the judge or bureaucrat favors the religious commitments of the program. Monsma concluded that the whole legal framework is applied arbitrarily and inconsistently, with more than a little religious prejudice thrown in––the most “pervasively sectarian” programs are almost invariably those from the most otherworldly traditions, usually run by zealous evangelical Protestants or by Catholics. In part for these reasons, the Supreme Court has over time modified its approach to church-state relations.

But not before making a disastrous false start. Writing for the Court in Smith, Justice Antonin Scalia ruled that an Oregon law prohibiting state employees from using illegal drugs also applied to American Indians who use the drug peyote in religious rituals. He reasoned that a law neutral towards religion (the Oregon law was obviously not a sneaky way of outlawing Indian religious practices) could not infringe the constitutional right to the free exercise of religion. Any law impeding religious practice would be constitutional as long as it did the impeding accidentally, as it were. As readers of this journal are well aware, the “formal neutrality” approach created an enormous backlash. Part of the backlash evolved into the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which was supposed to restore the right of religious freedom to its pre-Smith status. President Clinton signed it into law in 1993 only to have the Supreme Court strike it down in 1997.

The “substantive neutrality” idea behind charitable choice, on the other hand, holds that government policies may neither favor nor disfavor religion; they may make it neither easier nor harder to carry out one’s religious practices. (This theory seems to reflect Supreme Court jurisprudence since Smith, according to both Monsma and Carl Esbeck, the law professor at the University of Missouri-Columbia who drafted the charitable choice provision for Missouri’s Republican Senator John Ashcroft.)

In formal neutrality, the government may infringe on religious freedom as long as it does not formally set out to do so; this has had the effect of promoting secularism in the public sphere while relegating all religion to the private sphere. Substantive neutrality not only is neutral among all religions, it also does not subordinate religion to secularism. It allows the government to develop a “partnership” with religious citizens and religiously based mediating institutions so long as it evaluates them on the basis of their nonreligious virtues. The state cannot favor the organization that leads the most citizens to their salvation, but it can favor the one that turns the most hoodlums into good citizens, even if it does so by trying to save them.

Now that charitable choice is the law, one might expect faith-based charities to be lining up for government contracts. Yet very few have. Stanley Carlson-Thies of the Center for Public Justice believes that both FBOs and state bureaucrats harbor a half century of bad feelings that need to be overcome. Some states don’t seem to believe that they can now contract out with religious organizations. Others try to make FBOs adopt nondiscriminatory employment policies, although the law now permits them to hire and fire on religious grounds. Several states have provisions in their state constitutions that prohibit any government funds from going to religious organizations; others exclude them more subtly through contracting procedures and administrative requirements that smaller organizations find complicated and expensive.

For all the obstacles state governments still put in the way of charitable choice, Carlson-Thies claims some of the biggest problems come from the FBOs themselves. The more conservative Protestant congregations, for example, especially those in the South, are suspicious of nearly all entanglement with the government, fearing that strings inevitably are attached to the money. Religious organizations on the left often object to the entire welfare reform effort, seeing it as the first step towards dismantling government welfare. Some of the smaller FBOs believe that a shoestring budget is part of the key to their success, and so don’t want more money. Moreover, certain groups are so singular or rely so heavily on the inspiration of a few people that they see no way they can grow bigger or deal with more people. And some aggressively proselytizing FBOs are barred from charitable choice funds because they do not distinguish in any way their service programs from their ministries, requiring their clients to participate in their religious activities.

Most of the poorer churches and FBOs, though, do want government money––a fact confirmed in sociological research done by Mark Chaves of the University of Arizona. Chaves found that about a third of all the churches and congregations in America would take government money if they could get it, especially predominantly black churches, poor churches, liberal churches, and large churches (more than nine hundred members). (Many conference participants noted the ironies: conservative politicians want to give money to support religiously based institutions, while only liberal churches seem to want the money.) An Ashcroft aide said the Senator was disappointed that more FBOs had not taken advantage of charitable choice, but he was confident that this would change as they understood what an opportunity this law was for them. Ashcroft reportedly is working on another charitable choice bill that applies not just to welfare but to all government contracts concerning housing, juvenile crime prevention, substance abuse and treatment programs, abstinence education, senior services, and child welfare services. (Sen. Ashcroft can be reached at 202-224–3246,

While the passing of charitable choice is the most important development for the FBOs, equally notable is the boom in scholarly research on their activities and the increased attention paid them by the media. Although elite schools of social work still don’t pay attention to religion, more and more sociologists do, and they are trying to explain why FBOs succeed where government approaches fail. Although these discussions sometimes devolved into mere cheerleading for God, the conferences, especially the one at the Manhattan Institute, reflect an emerging consensus as to what makes a program successful amidst the toughest urban conditions.

Panelists at both conferences agreed that the most successful programs, whether the government’s or not, are run by people living near those they help. The Reverend Eugene Rivers, whose TenPoint Leadership Program is a highly successful ministry to violent and high-risk youth in Boston, believes “round the clock accessibility is essential” for a program to work. The service provider must “live around the corner, know his neighborhood, and speak the language.” Dr. Luis Lugo, Director of the Religion Program at the Pew Charitable Trusts, cited research showing that successful nongovernment programs are staffed by people who live in the same zip code as their clients.

Dr. Harold Dean Trulear from Public/Private Ventures agreed that proximity to the neighborhood is key, and this worried him. Now that many successful blacks are fleeing to the suburbs (with their churches not far behind), he fears that even the church-and faith-based outreach to inner-city youth will come from the suburbs, which will diminish their effectiveness. “The outreach used to be to ‘us,’ but once people move, the outreach is to ‘them,’ and the nature of the outreach changes.” Trulear observed that when the leaders who make an urban neighborhood work commute from outside, they go home at night and the leadership of the neighborhood leaves with them. If the homegrown leaders never develop, the FBOs “disempower” the people just as surely as government programs do. He suggested that suburbanites in high-powered jobs shouldn’t be running midnight basketball; it would be better for an ex“gang member to run the program and for the suburbanites to use their education and their resources, both spiritual and financial, to help.

When these programs do work, it is often because they encourage people to change their lives. Tom Lewis, a retired police officer who founded the Fishing School to nurture at-risk children in Washington D.C., emphasized what some have called the “transformative” nature of FBOs. His program gets its name from the adage that if you teach a man to fish, you have helped him forever. Thus, rather than just providing handouts, Lewis also helps the people who come to him evaluate their entire lives, encouraging them to determine where their life is going and motivating them to change. Dr. Floyd Flake, a former Congressman who is pastor of one of the largest black congregations in New York City, told the Manhattan Institute crowd that the secret to turning around the inner city is to get people “to look at themselves and the capacity that is within them.” Gary Walker, president of Public/Private Ventures, claimed that the secret to FBOs was that, unlike other social intervention programs, they have no qualms about trying to “develop better people.”

Dr. Amy Sherman, a sociologist who directs an urban ministry in Charlottesville, Virginia, also sees the transformative nature of FBOs as an important reason for their success. Instead of trying merely to rehabilitate a drug user, say, which might clean him up but leaves him with the emptiness that led him to drugs in the first place, FBOs try to turn him into a new man. Because of their religious beliefs, FBOs promote a more accurate understanding of human behavior. They tell those they help, “You are made in the image of God, and you have the dignity that comes with that; but you are also imperfect, subject to original sin, and are thus not the best judge of your actions.” Someone who buys this picture is more likely to look to God for a direction to his life and for an idea of how to behave morally, and less likely to remain aimless or to drift through life.

What’s more, since those staffing the FBO usually accept this picture and try to live morally themselves, they do not condescend to their clients. When the drug user and the person running the drug treatment program both agree that they share a struggle against their sinful inclinations, they can work together and make demands on each other, ending the one-sided relationships of the service provider paradigm. Sherman pointed out that the best programs insist that everybody must care for everybody else, requiring that all persons take responsibility for the actions of others as well as for themselves. This heavier demand operates as a “dignity enhancer”––when the most downtrodden are told they need to be leaders and that they have something to offer others, they stand a little taller and began to think they just might really be made in the image of God. They stop thinking solipsistically and begin to develop the outlook and virtues that make one a good citizen.

For all the wonkish jargon and occasional religious dissonance, the optimism and common sense, the faith and hope of the participants in the conferences left a strong impression. The theologian in me, though, had some doubts about the emphasis on generic “religion” or “faith.” When the government gives money to FBOs, it treats them as sort of a black box: government dollars and high-risk kids go in, and (often enough) moderately good citizens come out. As long as the FBOs meet certain minimal standards, the government will evaluate them simply in terms of their successes and failures. Many of the people involved in these conferences, however, seemed to believe that when a FBO is successful it is the religious element that does the trick––the subtext being that their successes are the result of supernatural assistance or evidence of God’s greater activity in their church. This can lead to some tricky theological problems: If the church across the street has a more successful outreach to gang members, do I convert? How do these (mostly) Christian advocates explain the successes of programs motivated by faiths incompatible with their own, such as those of the Nation of Islam? Or the greater successes of Nation of Islam programs than those run by liberal Episcopalians? Yes, God plays a role in people turning people’s lives around, as He plays a role in all things. But if 90 percent of Americans pray, as many at these conferences declared, aren’t there probably some government social workers who pray for their clients?

If so, and unless God out of deference to the ACLU ignores the prayers of state employees, the successes of FBOs are probably due in large part to something on the human side. The philosopher in me would bet that those who practice traditional religions have on average a better understanding of human nature than the nonreligious or the New Agers or those who practice an attenuated nontraditional form of Christianity or Judaism.

The jargon of FBOs seems to use “faith-based” as a sort of marker for programs that have the characteristics sketched above: an emphasis on transformation rather than rehabilitation; an attempt to raise expectations; the promotion of the dignity of the imago Dei over shallow self-esteem; the acknowledgment of one’s imperfections and need for help in overcoming them; the presence of grown-ups who care about the people they help. These sound like the sort of things any good football coach can inspire. They also are, with the relevant modifications, characteristics of Black Nationalism, feminist consciousness-raising, and, for all I know, the Aryan Nation.

Although this is hotly debated, my bet is that programs grounded in contradictory faiths can have similar results (humanly speaking) because those faiths share a more or less correct understanding of human nature and what one needs to flourish humanly, despite their differences over how human beings flourish supernaturally. This result would be predicted by traditional Christian anthropology, what some traditions call natural law and others call common grace. On this view, religion might be the best way to persuade people of the truth about human nature; convincing a drug addict or juvenile delinquent that Jesus loves him is likely to be more successful than teaching him Aristotle or Kant.

It is important to mention these caveats because of a dangerous tendency of sociologists to talk about religion in purely instrumental terms, i.e., as a means to the end of creating good citizens. The government black box approach to FBOs makes sense-religion does seem to be a way to save the inner cities and make bad citizens into good ones. But religious groups have to be careful not to let the desire for government approval affect their own thinking about what they are doing. Otherwise they reduce the supernatural to the natural, and they encourage policy elites to believe that traditional religion is only for the down-and-out.

Despite such dangers and possible misunderstandings, however, FBOs are here to stay, and these conferences help to show why. Each gathered innovative traditionalists and upbeat moral realists “reaching out” to “empower people” and “renew the civil society” of the “inner cities” through “church-based” and “community-based” “public/private partnerships” and “initiatives.” It is enough to restore one’s faith in the vibrancy of the American experiment, if not in the future of the English language.

Daniel P. Moloney is Associate Editor of First Things.