Sacred Places, Civic Purposes: Should Government Help Faith-Based Charity?

Sacred Places, Civic Purposes: Should Government Help Faith-Based Charity?


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Long before there was a welfare state, there were efforts by religious congregations to alleviate poverty. Those efforts have continued since the establishment of government programs to help the poor, and congregations have often worked with government agencies to provide food, clothing and care, to set up after-school activities, provide teen pregnancy counseling, and develop programs to prevent crime. Until now, much of this church-state cooperation has gone on with limited opposition or notice. But the Bush Administration's new proposal to broaden support for "faith-based" social programs has heated up an already simmering debate. What are congregations' proper roles in lifting up the poor? What should their relationship with government be? Sacred Places, Civic Purposes explores the question with a lively discussion that crisscrosses every line of partisanship and ideology. The result of a series of conferences funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts and sponsored by the Brookings Institution, this book focuses not simply on abstract questions of the promise and potential dangers of church-state cooperation, but also on concrete issues where religious organizations are leading problem solvers. The authors – experts in their respective fields and from various walks of life - examine the promises and perils of faith-based organizations in preventing teen pregnancy, reducing crime and substance abuse, fostering community development, bolstering child care, and assisting parents and children on education issues. They offer conclusions about what congregations are currently doing, how government could help, and how government could usefully get out of the way. Contributors include William T. Dickens (National Community Development Policy Analysis Network and the Brookings Institution), John DiIulio (White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives and University of Pennsylvania), Floyd Flake (Allen AME Church and Manhattan Institute), Bill Galston (Unversity of Maryland), David Hornbeck (former superintendent, Philadelphia Public Schools), George Kelling (Rutgers University), Joyce Ladner (Brookings Institution), Joan Lombardi (Children's Project), Pietro Nivola (Brookings Institution), Eugene Rivers (Azusa Christian Community Center), Isabel V. Sawhill (National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy and the Brookings Institution), Lisbeth Schorr (Harvard Project for Effective Interventions), Peter Steinfels (New York Times), Jim Wallis (Sojourners), and Christopher Winship (Harvard University).

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780815702597
Publisher: Brookings Institution Press
Publication date: 11/29/2001
Pages: 272
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x (d)

About the Author

E.J. Dionne Jr. is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, cochair of the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, and a syndicated columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group. Ming Hsu Chen, a Paul and Daisy Soros Fellow at New York University Law School, served as a research assistant at the Brookings Institution.

Read an Excerpt

Sacred Places, Civic Purposes

Should Government Help Faith-Based Charity?

Brookings Institution Press

Copyright © 2001 Brookings Institution Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0815702590

Chapter One

When the Sacred Meets the Civic: An Introduction

How can anyone oppose government help for religious congregations working so hard to shelter the homeless and battle crime in inner cities, to provide child care for poor children, and to bring investment to the neighborhoods they serve? Why shouldn't government do all it can to nurture these islands of hope?

How can anyone who believes in the First Amendment's promise of religious freedom support giving any government money to religious institutions that might use the funds to advance a particular faith? Why should government channel aid to the poor through congregations that might use a disadvantaged person's vulnerability as an opportunity for recruitment and conversion?

These are tendentious, but not necessarily unfair, questions. The fact that many Americans might see both sets of questions as reasonable helps explain why our great national debate over government help to faith-based organizations arouses such passion and engenders such division. It is not as simple as the country being split into hostile camps; Americans, as individuals, are often divided within themselves.

Large majorities like the idea of supporting the community workof religious congregations because they respect what they do and believe that religion can transform people's lives. They believe that greater choice in social programs will lead to better services and that faith-based providers are especially caring and compassionate.

Yet majorities also worry that such programs might force recipients to take part in religious practices against their will. They are concerned that government might become too involved in religious organizations. And most Americans oppose allowing government-funded religious groups to make hiring decisions on the basis of an applicant's faith.

In principle, Americans want the government to help faith-based organizations. In practice, they worry about what that help might mean.

As Peter Steinfels argues in his powerful closing chapter of this book, the current interest in the work of religious congregations reflects the confluence of many currents in American political thought going back some forty years. On this issue, the left's long-standing interest in granting power to grassroots organizations controlled by the poor meets the right's desire to find alternatives to government provision of social assistance. A general disaffection with government's performance meets a widespread belief that programs to uplift the needy must convey values and virtues as well as money. Our rendezvous with this issue, as Steinfels argues, now seems inevitable.

Those who sympathize with the work of religious congregations thus include people motivated by very different impulses and points of view. Some see social problems as the result of individual failures and disabilities. They see the poor as being poor primarily because they have made bad personal decisions. This view emerges at times in President Bush's rhetoric, which emphasizes the importance of individual conversion as a means of overcoming personal failures. He speaks quite honestly of the importance of conversion in his own life. Seen in this optic, supporting faith-based institutions means strengthening efforts to encourage the poor to make appropriate moral choices.

Others who sympathize with faith-based groups agree that the disadvantaged should be seen as morally responsible for themselves. But they insist that often the poor are poor because of unjust social structures, discrimination, government policies, and economic changes over which they have little control. Those who hold this view see religious congregations not only as a source of personal strength for individuals but also as "prophetic interrogators"-a phrase from Jim Wallis, another contributor to this book-who challenge social injustice. Those who believe this also want to strengthen the religious community, but they do not want government funding to still dissident voices in the congregations. Faith-based groups, after all, are often the most powerful advocates for those who are left out and among the only institutions over which the poor have control.

Related to this distinction is another, between those who see congregations primarily in individualistic terms and those who see them as builders of community. In one view, religion is fundamentally about saving people one soul at a time. Those who believe this and advocate government funding for faith-based services do so because they believe religion will strengthen individuals. In the other view, religious congregations are builders of community and civil society. As Mark R. Warren has put it, religion is seen as providing "an initial basis of cooperation by grounding such action in a set of common values, goals, and commitments to the public good.... At its best, religion has provided a moral basis Introduction to conceive of our place in a larger human society and inspired people to work for racial equality, social justice, and democracy."

Some who support the work of religious congregations do so because they hope to win converts to their faith. Others believe that their faith requires them to serve those in need, whether the needy convert or not. Many believe both these propositions at the same time.

Finally, there are those who hope that religious congregations might take over important parts of the welfare state. Others see congregations' work as indispensable, but supplementary to the tasks of government. Those in the first camp are deeply skeptical of government and would like to reduce its role in American life. Those in the second camp believe profoundly in government's essential role in providing health care, education, supplementary income, and training to those who fall on hard times. But they believe that congregations can do things government cannot and reach people in a way no government employee, however well intentioned, ever could.

It must be added, of course, that many-including members of all of these groups-insist that congregations are not primarily about social work or community organization, but places of worship, instruction, and service to God.

And almost all of these distinctions may oversimplify the motivations of the competing camps. But to make them is to underscore one of the central purposes of this book: to suggest that seeing the work of religious congregations through a narrow ideological prism-conservative or liberal, "accommodationist" or "separationist," Republican or Democratic, religious or secular-is to miss the richness of their contribution to American life. It is also to miss the richness of the debate over what government should and should not do to encourage their work.

Opening Up the Debate

Our purpose here is not to impress upon readers a particular, dogmatic viewpoint or to give one and only one answer to the question posed in our subtitle. On the contrary, in an area where the lines are drawn sharply and harden quickly, this is very consciously not a party-line book. It is intended to open up the debate, not to narrow it.

We hope that even the staunchest critics of government funding for congregations might come away with a better understanding of why this idea appeals to many and with a better appreciation of the large contributions that congregations make. And we hope that even the strongest supporters of government assistance for these groups might better appreciate that serious questions about this idea are not simply the product of extreme secularist minds closed to religion altogether, but reflect genuine concerns about civil rights and religious freedom.

This book began taking shape well before President Bush took office and made the work of faith-based organizations a centerpiece of his administration. It grew out of a series of conferences held between 1999 and 2001 at the Brookings Institution with the support of the Pew Charitable Trusts. This volume is designed neither to praise nor to condemn the president's efforts; you will find both praise and criticism here. Most of the essays are concerned with problems that transcend the particulars of one administration's efforts, on the theory that we will be debating the role of religious institutions in our public life long after this administration ends.

The project reflects a certain frustration with the way the issue of government aid to faith-based organizations is usually confronted. In 1997, one of the editors and John DiIulio-who served as the first director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives before his departure in August of 2001-put together a series of meetings to discuss what churches, synagogues, and mosques do to alleviate poverty and assist the marginalized. The meetings were highly productive and led to publication of the volume What's God Got to Do with the American Experiment?

What became clear during those discussions is that, too often, advocates of competing viewpoints retreat too quickly to first principles. The word retreat is chosen intentionally. Of course, it is good to argue about first principles. But participants in this debate are so comfortable with disputes over what the First Amendment does or does not mean that they sometimes give short shrift to examining the actual contributions of religious congregations to social well-being.

Many insights are lost when this happens, among them the role of congregations as providers of service, as the creation and creators of community, and as organizers of efforts to push government and society to do more on behalf of social justice. The fact that much government money has long flowed in, through, and around religious institutions is ignored. And, as we have seen, important differences among those who admire the work of the congregations get lost, too.

The Sacred Places, Civic Purposes project was organized to put problem solving at the forefront and to deal with the broader constitutional and cultural issues in the context of the specific and important work that congregations do. You could say that we enter the discussion through a side door, beginning with the social problems and what can be done about them. Only then do we ask about the capacity of religious groups to alleviate them, and only after that do we look at government's role. This book is, first, about social problems, especially problems faced by the poor; second, about the contributions that religious groups Introduction make to meeting these social needs; and, third, about the ways in which government can help (and may hinder) the efforts of religious groups.

This focus is reflected in the organization of the book and the substance of the essays. The last section deals with the broad argument about government aid to faith-based organizations only after a series of essays that examine particular problems in which congregations are closely engaged. We focused on five: teen pregnancy, crime, community development, education, and child care. We know, of course, that the work of congregations extends beyond these areas, but they are particularly instructive and important.

Our goal was to gather together not only specialists on church-state issues but also social scientists, clergy, educators, government officials, social service providers, activists, and business leaders deeply engaged in these issues. We wanted to discuss what faith-based organizations do in the context of the efforts of others to deal with the problems at hand. The sessions, in which some 500 people participated, were notable not just for the work of the formal presenters but also for the quality of our audiences, which were made up of sober analysts, passionate practitioners, and impassioned critics. Some of the essays here grow out of comments from the audience and are not simply the work of those commissioned to write or respond to papers.

The first five sections of the book are organized in roughly the same way, containing two or three major papers from each session, followed by a series of shorter commentaries. This book is not a conference report. Transcripts of the meetings themselves can be found at the Brookings Institution website ( Instead, we asked authors to transform their comments into essays. We greatly appreciate their work. Many of the shorter essays are self-contained arguments and occasionally reply as much to each other as to the major papers. The essays by Keith Pavlischek and Julie Segal, for example, grew out of our session on crime, but they offer rich encapsulations of the views on opposing sides in the broader charitable choice controversy.

If we may be permitted a brief point of pride, we believe that the authors gathered in this book are among the best people in their particular fields. They offer a very wide range of viewpoints-religious and denominational as well as political and philosophical. Neither of the editors agrees with all of the essays gathered here, and we suspect that this will be true of virtually anyone who comes to this book. We hope this is one of its strengths. And many of the essays, designed to describe social problems and what is being done to alleviate them, may draw assent across ideological and philosophical barriers.

As the book makes clear, supporters of government aid for faith-based social service provision are not always themselves religiously active or even religious at all. Critics of these proposals include some who are now hard at work within the very congregations and faith-based organizations targeted for assistance. On many of these questions, those most involved in faith-based organizations are more interested in achieving a broader and more generous commitment by government to the poor than in receiving any particular help for their own institution.

Faith-Based Problem Solving

Religious congregations play very different roles on different issues. On the matter of teen pregnancy, there is widespread concern about whether religious congregations are doing enough, and different denominations and religious traditions clearly have quite different views on what the content of sex education should be.

This often unnoticed fact should not be surprising. As Isabel Sawhill writes, those engaged in battling teen pregnancy tend to be divided into two broad camps. One camp, which she describes as moralists, is concerned primarily with the immorality of premarital sex and its dangers. Those she calls consequentialists are concerned primarily with the health consequences and the number of births to teens. She argues that strategies offered by both groups are essential to continuing the downward trend of teen pregnancy.

Debra Haffner, a consequentialist in Sawhill's terms, advocates an approach that emphasizes education (including education in contraception). Congregations, she says, should play an important part in supplementing the education that takes place in the home and in schools. Patrick Fagan, a moralist in Sawhill's schema, cautions that liberal approaches to sexuality have failed to produce results and that only a religiously based, abstinence approach can sustain the downward trend. Fagan argues that church attendance itself is powerfully associated with the avoidance of early sexual experience by teens and thus of pregnancy. We do not agree with all of Fagan's views-for what it is worth, our ideas run closer to those of Sawhill. But Fagan's essay underscores that the most important effects of religion often come from practice itself and not from any particular "faith-based program." One can believe this, of course, and still oppose government grants and contracts that directly support the practice of religion.

The control and prevention of crime entail some of the least and most controversial forms of faith-based engagement. It is impossible not to admire the work congregations have done to patrol neighborhoods, keep at-risk teens from falling into criminality, and help former prisoners rebuild their lives. John DiIulio, George Kelling, the Reverend Eugene Rivers, and Chris Winship, among others, discuss the success of Boston's Ten Point Coalition in grappling with these tasks.


Excerpted from Sacred Places, Civic Purposes Copyright © 2001 by Brookings Institution Press
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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