Eyal Press

Lead Us Not into Temptation

December 19th, 2001

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Shortly after George W. Bush announced the creation of the White House
Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives–launched on January 29 to
facilitate a new era of partnership between the government and religious
groups–the nation’s airwaves were filled with assertions about the unique
capacity of religious organizations to solve our most intractable social
problems. “Study after study shows these faith-based initiatives work better,
much better in most cases, than government ones,” declared CNN’s Tucker Carlson
on The Spin Room that night. William Donahue, president of the Catholic
League for Religious and Civil Rights, told The Washington Times,
“Faith-based initiatives not only work better than their secular counterparts,
they do so at a fraction of the cost.”

It’s a claim many politicians have come to embrace. “We will look first to
faith-based organizations,” President Bush has promised, “because private and
religious groups are effective. Because they have clear advantages over
government.” The idea dovetails neatly with the long-standing conservative belief
that social maladies like violence and drug addiction derive less from material
deprivation than from spiritual and moral decay.

But many Democrats have become converts as well. Twice in recent years,
Democrats and Republicans have joined hands in Congress to pass “charitable
choice” legislation, which allows faith-based organizations to mix secular and
religious activities while running certain publicly funded services–an approach
President Bush promises to expand to every existing social program.

Relying on religious groups to perform an increasing array of social functions
is typically presented as a matter of doing what a growing body of evidence
suggests works best. “Churches do a great deal of good for considerably less
resource investment than we pay via other institutional means,” John DiIulio, the
Princeton University professor whom Bush has appointed to head the White House
Office of Faith-Based Initiatives, told Sojourners magazine. “That’s the
pure public policy analysis.”

Given how frequently such claims are repeated, it may come as a surprise
to learn that there is virtually no scholarly evidence to support them. “We
don’t have the research to tell us whether faith-based organizations are better
or not,” says Nancy Ammerman, a sociologist of religion at the Hartford Seminary
who is in the process of completing a survey of more than 540 congregations.
“Nobody has done the comparative research.” Mark Chaves, a sociologist at the
University of Arizona who has conducted numerous national surveys of church-based
social programs, agrees. “It can’t be said strongly enough how little we know
about whether religion makes a difference in the effectiveness of delivering

This is not to deny the important civic and humanitarian function that
many religious organizations play–and have long played–in our society, both
through their social-outreach activities and by providing a moral community for
their members. Several studies have shown that, all other things being equal,
individuals who attend church are less likely to be arrested or to abuse drugs,
and more likely to find jobs and escape poverty, than those who do not. But none
of these studies tells us anything about whether religious organizations are more
effective than their secular counterparts in delivering social services.

While the benefits of channeling taxpayer dollars to religious groups remain
unknown, one thing is certain: Doing so will dramatically alter the relationship
between church and state, in ways that concern not only civil libertarians but
many religious leaders as well. How, for example, will public officials select
which religious programs to fund without favoring some denominations over others?
And how will federal agencies regulate religious providers without breaching the
constitutional prohibition against excessive church-state entanglement?
Proponents of charitable choice claim that the legislation merely “levels the
playing field” between secular and religious groups by allowing the latter to
compete on an equal basis for government funds. Yet the new laws actually grant
religious organizations all kinds of preferential treatment, including the right
to discriminate on the basis of religion in their hiring practices and exemptions
from state licensing and training requirements that apply to secular providers.

This preferential treatment is unnecessary: A wide array of religiously
affiliated organizations, such as Lutheran Services in America and Catholic
Charities USA, have for decades been eligible to receive public funding, provided
the secular functions they carry out are not intermingled with religious
activities. Faith-based organizations that respect this distinction should by all
means be encouraged to participate more actively in helping provide services for
the poor. To the extent that these organizations are rooted in their local
communities and staffed by dedicated and professional people, there’s no question
they can be effective providers of such services. But to expect that they can
play anything more than an auxiliary role in combating major social problems is
to ignore both what the existing evidence suggests and what many people within
these organizations know from firsthand experience.

Expressing Faith without Preaching the Word

The Welfare Reform Liaison Project occupies a 16,000-square-foot
painted-brick warehouse on a desolate commercial strip in Greensboro, North
Carolina. Situated across from an auto repair shop and a Crown gas station, the
building looks abandoned on the overcast December morning I’ve come to visit. But
by 9:00 a.m., roughly a dozen women have gathered inside to participate in one of
the state’s most innovative welfare-to-work programs.

“We work with the hardest to serve,” says the Reverend Odell Cleveland,
the program’s founder and director, welcoming me inside an enormous storage room
with bare cement floors that is cluttered with boxes of merchandise. A tall,
broadshouldered man who spent 17 years working as a truck driver before becoming
a minister, Cleveland launched this program several years ago after growing
alarmed about the impact that the 1996 welfare reform law would have on the
predominantly poor, African-American community of southeast Greensboro. Aware
that the 1996 law included a “charitable choice” provision allowing religious
organizations to operate welfare-to-work transition programs, Cleveland
approached George Brooks, senior pastor at the Mount Zion Baptist Church (where
Cleveland is now a minister), with a blueprint for establishing an education and
job-training program targeting those who would soon be removed from the rolls.

Four years later, drawing on a mix of foundation and government grants,
Cleveland’s program has put roughly 80 individuals through a series of classes
and provided many of them with on-the-job training at the warehouse, which now
serves as a distribution center to disburse gifts from corporate America to needy
families in the community. During my visit, the mostly female workforce–many of
whom, Cleveland explains, are “second- and third-generation welfare recipients,
people who society says have no value at all”–sorted holiday gifts for $8 an

“This is my way of expressing my faith,” says Cleveland, telling me that when
he first got started, the warehouse didn’t even have heating. Today, 80 percent
of the program’s graduates are employed–a record that would seem to offer at
least anecdotal evidence in support of the familiar conservative refrain that, as
former Mississippi Governor Kirk Fordice has put it, “God, not government, will
be the savior of welfare recipients.”

But Cleveland would be the first to tell you it’s not nearly so simple. For
one thing, the Welfare Reform Liaison Project, far from replacing its secular and
government counterparts, actively collaborates with and depends on them. The vast
majority of its clients, for example, could not enroll in the program (and
subsequently hold down jobs) without securing child-care services from the North
Carolina Department of Social Services. Moreover, the Mount Zion Baptist Church
could never have taken possession of the warehouse without help from the Weaver
Foundation, a secular nonprofit that provided financial support; nor could it
distribute goods in the community without assistance from the United Way of
Greater Greensboro, with whom the project collaborates. “I believe the
faith-based community has a role to play,” says Cleveland, “but we have to
understand the limits of our capacity.”

It’s a point that Bob Wineburg, a professor of social work at the University
of North Carolina at Greensboro and a close friend of Cleveland’s, stresses
repeatedly in his new book, A Limited Partnership, which examines the role
of religious organizations in delivering social services in Greensboro. Wineburg
finds that while churches and other faith-based organizations participate in an
array of social-welfare activities throughout the city, they lack both the
administrative capacity and the expertise to play anything more than a subsidiary
role within a broader network of care that would collapse were the bulk of
responsibilities (health care, child care, job training) turned over to them.

National studies confirm this. In a 1999 survey of more than 1,200 religious
organizations, Mark Chaves found that more than half of the congregations
participated in social service projects of some sort, with African-American and
liberal churches playing a particularly strong social-outreach role. The vast
majority of these activities, however, were “short-term, small-scale” efforts,
such as sending volunteers to help staff soup kitchens. And congregations devoted
an average of 2 percent to 4 percent of their budgets to social service–figures
that underscore the potential limits of a social policy that centers around
private religious groups while ignoring the need for public investment in areas
like health care and education.

Despite its affiliation with Mount Zion Baptist Church, the Welfare Reform
Liaison Project is a separate 501(c)3 nonprofit corporation that does not
discriminate in either whom it serves or whom it hires, and that keeps religion
confined to an optional prayer each morning at 8:30 a.m. To Cleveland, separating
prayer from service is not an inconvenience but a matter of principle. “I’ve had
people tell me they have a Bible study as part of their welfare-to-work program,”
he says. “I don’t think that’s the way to go, because I don’t think people should
be asked to participate in something they don’t believe in. The fact is, not
everyone who comes through this program is going to believe in God, but if they
are being helped, I believe God is being served.” The program’s success, in
Cleveland’s view, derives not from the magical powers of prayer but rather from
the professionalism of its staff members (all of whom are trained social workers)
and its connection to the community.

Of course, many supporters of charitable choice say that its main goal is
to open the door to precisely those providers that directly incorporate prayer
into their programs. “Religious groups must be able to refer to biblical
principles in their job-readiness classes, to pray with program participants who
desire it, to keep their religious character while offering assistance,” writes
Amy Sherman of the Hudson Institute, a conservative think tank. By emphasizing
“tough love” and “spiritual motivation,” Sherman contends, such providers are
able to command “moral authority and cultivate traditional values among welfare
recipients in order to transform a ‘culture of dependency’”–a form of compassion
that instills a sense of personal responsibility and is therefore far more
effective than mere government handouts.

The Tragedy of Marvin Olasky

The argument that spiritual care is uniquely effective forms the
centerpiece of what, at least in conservative circles, is the most influential
book behind the current turn toward providing faith-based social services: The
Tragedy of American Compassion, by Marvin Olasky. Hailed by conservative
commentator William J. Bennett as “the most important book on welfare and social
policy in a decade,” Olasky’s book (originally published in 1992) argues that
history shows religious institutions to be the best vehicles of compassion. From
the colonial era until the late nineteenth century, Olasky argues, social care in
America was effective because private and religious charities tended to the poor
in a manner that “stressed man’s sinfulness, which only God’s grace could
change.” This “early American model of compassion” worked, Olasky contends, but
was eclipsed by the rise of the welfare state and the Great Society programs of
the 1960s. These initiatives replaced true compassion with government handouts,
in Olasky’s view, fostering a culture of dependency that led to an explosion of
social problems while failing to address spiritual needs.

Packed with footnotes that lend the work an air of scholarly rigor, The
Tragedy of American Compassion caught the attention of, among others, George
W. Bush (who has since dubbed Olasky “compassionate conservatism’s leading
thinker”) and Newt Gingrich, who urged his Republican colleagues to read the book
following the 1994 election. It was at this point that Olasky came to Washington
and watched as a group of Republican politicians, including Congressmen Steve
Largent and J.C. Watts and former Senators Dan Coats and John Ashcroft, launched
the Renewal Alliance, an organization dedicated to promoting faith-based
solutions to social problems. As Coats explained at a Heritage Foundation
symposium in 1995, “Families, churches and community groups were forced to
surrender their authority and function to bureaucratic experts. Fathers were
replaced by welfare checks, private charities were displaced by government
spending.” Calling for a return to the era of “true compassion,” Coats
proclaimed: “Every dollar spent by … faith-based charities is more efficient
and compassionate than any dollar spent by the federal government.”

The trouble is, while Olasky purports to prove this on the basis of historical
evidence, his book distorts far more than it illuminates about the past. The
historian David Hammack has noted that Olasky’s “‘Early American Model of
Compassion’ was never uniformly accepted and nowhere put comprehensively into
practice.” Colonial towns “often ‘warned out’ people who could not demonstrate a
right to ‘settlement,’” leaving the poor to fend for themselves, and established
churches frequently mixed “compassion” with oppressive and exclusive policies
that many colonists bitterly denounced.

While Olasky writes glowingly of the “Benevolent Empire” that extended
compassion in the nineteenth century to “both black and white,” he glosses over
the history of slavery and the racism that pervaded many religious institutions.
He claims that the poor were better off in 1890 (when charity was in private
hands) than 100 years later, not bothering to address the consensus view among
historians that, as James Patterson puts it in his authoritative study
America’s Struggle against Poverty, “the percentage of Americans defined as
poor by consistent standards was as high in the late nineteenth century as it has
ever been or was to be.” And his account of the 1960s, when everything supposedly
went awry, is curiously silent about Medicare, Medicaid, and the expansion of
Social Security, which many scholars credit with all but eliminating poverty
among the elderly.

That religious leaders and organizations have long been involved in various
humanitarian causes, from abolition to suffrage to temperance, is unquestionably
true; that the poor would be better off if we could only return to the model of
compassion that prevailed in the colonial era is preposterous.

Fuzzy Regulation

But the dubiousness of Olasky’s historical theory has not diminished its
impact on contemporary policy. As Olasky himself notes in his most recent book,
Compassionate Conservatism, published last year, the soon-to-be governor of
Texas called him in 1993 “to discuss the policy implications of my findings.” The
opportunity to apply these findings came two years later: The Texas Commission on
Alcohol and Drug Abuse, a state regulatory agency, threatened to shut down a San
Antonio branch of Teen Challenge, a faith-based drug rehabilitation program with
more than 120 branches throughout the United States, for failing to employ
licensed drug counselors [see "Why Jesus Is Not a Regulator," on page 26].
Outraged that the state was unleashing its “regulatory dogs” on an effective
faith-based program, Olasky helped organize a protest in defense of Teen
Challenge. Bush promptly sided with the program, granting Teen Challenge an
exemption from state regulation, and soon thereafter passed a law freeing all
faith-based groups in Texas from state oversight and licensing requirements.

What is the justification for such special treatment? A proven track
record of success, supporters say. Teen Challenge views drug addiction not as a
lifelong disease that requires professional counseling and medication but as
sinful behavior that can be permanently cured through Bible classes and the
teachings of Christ–an approach, its backers say, that is superior. “Studies
demonstrate that Teen Challenge’s success rates in curing substance abusers are
seven to eight times higher than those of secular drug rehabilitation programs,”
says the Hudson Institute’s Amy Sherman. Last year, Missouri Congressman Jim
Talent, a Republican who at the time was co-sponsoring federal legislation that
would allow religious organizations to compete for billions of dollars in
federally funded drug-and-alcohol-treatment programs, posted a fact sheet on his
Web site. “According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse [NIDA],” the Web
site matter-of-factly proclaimed, faith-based programs like Teen Challenge “have
a 60-80 percent cure rate,” compared with the “6-13 percent success rate” for
conventional treatment programs; they are also cheaper, costing “only $25-$35 a
day,” compared with “$600 a day for conventional treatment programs.”

The numbers are impressive. They are also utterly baseless. As soon as it
learned about the Web site, NIDA disavowed being Talent’s source, noting that no
evidence exists “to make any valid conclusive statements about the role that
faith plays in drug addiction treatment.” A 1998 General Accounting Office (GAO)
report commissioned by, among others, Newt Gingrich and Dennis Hastert, the
current Speaker of the House, concluded that “regardless of how faith-based is
defined, there has not been sufficient research to determine the results of this
type of treatment.” Moreover, the GAO added, conventional treatment programs have
a 40 percent to 50 percent success rate (defined as one year of abstinence
following treatment)–hardly the “6-13 percent” claimed by Talent. Many of these
programs also cost less than Teen Challenge: $13 per day for outpatient methadone
treatment; $15 per day for outpatient drug-free programs.

And Teen Challenge’s “60-80 percent cure rate”? NIDA did perform a small-scale
study in 1974 and 1975 that found that 67 percent of Teen Challenge’s graduates
remained drug-free a year after the program; but the study also revealed that
only 18 percent of clients who began the program actually graduated, making the
“cure rate” meaningless. (Another religious provider that is routinely cited for
its miraculous cure rate, Victory Fellowship, likewise claims 70 percent to 80
percent success among those completing its program–which is completely
different from measuring those who enter the program.)

The NIDA study noted that Teen Challenge retains the right to dismiss clients
along the way “for sufficient instances of inappropriate behavior,” including
“use of drugs” (that is, relapsing) and “rule breaking.” What’s more, NIDA found
that more than one-third of the clients who dropped out of the program cited “an
excess of religion” as one of the reasons.

Yet these factual deficiencies haven’t seemed to matter. In an op-ed published
last June in The Washington Times, Robert Woodson, president of the
National Center for Neighborhood Enterprise (a conservative organization
bankrolled by the right-wing Bradley Foundation), urged passage of the
legislation co-sponsored by Congressman Talent and repeated the claim that
faith-based programs succeed “at rates far higher than those of secular programs,
and at significantly lower costs.” In response, numerous organizations, including
the National Association of Addiction Treatment Providers, jointly submitted a
letter debunking the claim. Their letter was never published. Woodson’s op-ed,
however, was distributed to members of Congress, and last December the
legislation was enacted into law. The bill includes a provision that not only
makes faith-based programs eligible to receive public funds but exempts them from
the state education and training requirements applied to all secular providers–a
step many experts fear will create a dangerous two-tiered system.

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“There is real concern about an erosion of standards for treatment,” says
Bill McColl, who until recently was the executive director of the National
Association of Alcoholism and Drug Abuse Counselors. “When you come at alcoholism
not as a disease but as a moral issue, and your counselors are saying, ‘These
people can withstand temptation if they just pray,’ and they are not subject to
the state licensing and regulatory standards that everyone else must meet, that
is troubling. Because this is a disease, and it is in the proper domain of public
health, and if you are out there promoting what you are doing as treating
addiction, you should be properly licensed.”

While President Bush has assured religious organizations that he will create
“alternative licensing procedures” so they are not “buried by regulation,” some
within the religious community have acknowledged that regulation is both
inevitable and appropriate when government funds are involved–which is why they
are wary about the current direction of policy. “When citizens pay tax money,
they have the right to insist that it is used efficiently and fairly,” notes
Melissa Rogers, former general counsel for the Baptist Joint Committee, which represents
one of numerous mainline churches that oppose charitable choice. Government
regulation is particularly unavoidable under charitable choice, Rogers notes,
because while the legislation allows the government to fund “pervasively
sectarian” institutions–an activity courts have generally prohibited in the
past–it restricts these institutions from using tax dollars directly for
“sectarian worship, instruction, or proselytization.”

How will the government ensure that tax dollars are used for acceptable
activities (say, rent and utilities) rather than unsuitable ones (Bible study
materials, the salaries of ministers) without violating the Constitution’s ban on
excessive state entanglement in the affairs of religious organizations? If public
agencies are rigorous about enforcement, Rogers notes, religious groups may soon
find themselves “filing annual compliance reports, waiving rights of
confidentiality, and submitting to governmental investigations”–consequences
that not only will undermine religious autonomy but will divert time, energy, and
resources away from worship. If they are not rigorous, on the other hand,
taxpayers will have no idea how their money is being spent and recipients may be
tempted to misuse it. Direct government funding of sectarian organizations,
Rogers concludes, is “the wrong way to do right,” since it will ultimately
inhibit religious freedom.

The Case of Eugene Rivers

The Reverend Eugene Rivers, pastor of the Azusa Christian Community, a
Pentecostal church in the Dorchester section of Boston, offers a powerful
counterargument–an argument many liberals might find convincing. A
self-described “New Leftist” who converted a former crack house in one of
Boston’s poorest communities into the headquarters of his now-celebrated activist
ministry, Rivers is among the founders of the Ten-Point Coalition, a group of
churches that came together in 1992 to combat the gang violence that was claiming
the lives of a growing number of the city’s black and Latino youths. Less than a
decade later, Boston’s homicide rate has plummeted 80 percent, turning Rivers’s
faith-centered, street-level ministering into the stuff of legend. “Savior of the
Streets,” proclaimed a 1998 Newsweek cover story on “God vs. Gangs” that
hailed Rivers’s Christian style of social outreach as “the hottest idea in crime
fighting.” The Ten-Point Coalition has been the subject of a PBS documentary, a
glowing Joe Klein article in The New Yorker, and stories in publications
ranging from The Weekly Standard to Time.

Rivers deserves the praise. An exceptionally dedicated and charismatic
figure, he combines the missionary zeal of an evangelist with the intellectual
acumen of a Harvard professor. Rivers told me that his typical day, which takes
him from prayer sessions with ex-offenders to meetings with the police
department’s gang unit, begins at 5:00 a.m. and ends well after midnight. “What I
have discovered in doing this work is that I have run into no secular agnostics
or atheists in the trenches when the bullets began to fly,” he says. “My house
has been shot into twice and burglarized six times. But in communities like this,
all the high secular liberals have evacuated.” Were it not for his faith, Rivers
joked, “I’d be sitting someplace writing books–in Vermont, with my family,
watching black people on BET and doing talk shows with Cornel West.”

Rivers’s work has begun to attract the attention not only of journalists but
of scholars, although what they’re finding complicates the often simplistic
lessons drawn in the media about the miraculous powers of faith. Christopher
Winship, a sociologist at Harvard University, has argued that while the Ten-Point
Coalition has indeed played an important role in the Boston miracle, its
contribution had less to do with “ministering” than with serving as the key
intermediary institution between Boston’s inner-city communities and the city’s
police force, which in 1996 launched an aggressive community-policing initiative
against gang violence.

“In every poor community in this country, you have ministers who have a
genuine concern for kids,” Rivers says. The left, he notes, has no problem
recognizing the efficacy of black churches during the civil rights movement. So
why not now? Those who oppose charitable choice on First Amendment grounds, he
charges, are “upper-income liberals” who care more about whether a social service
provider has a cross on its door than whether the institution is doing an
effective job serving the poor.

But Mark Stern, a lawyer at the American Jewish Congress, points out that
while many religious groups that receive public funds will respect the ban on
proselytizing, charitable choice has already spawned four lawsuits that raise
serious constitutional questions. Among these are a case involving state funding
for a Bible class in Texas and another involving a Christian 12-step course for
addicted fathers in Wisconsin. The government has yet to clarify how it plans to
determine whether a pervasively sectarian organization has used public funds for
direct proselytizing. And although Congress has mandated that a secular
alternative be provided to recipients of services who raise objections in such
cases, states are not required to inform beneficiaries of their right to
seek an alternative.

Virginia Democrat Bobby Scott, a member of the Congressional Black Caucus,
notes that charitable choice also raises serious civil rights concerns, since the
legislation allows faith-based groups that receive public funds to discriminate
on the basis of religion in their hiring practices. “We are allowing groups to
practice religious bigotry with federal funds,” asserts Scott. “I think that’s
turning the clock way back to the days when it was considered okay to say, ‘We
don’t hire your kind.’”

For Rivers the prospect of revitalizing inner-city neighborhoods through
church-based activism understandably outweighs such concerns. The black community
would be foolish, he says, to dismiss the opportunity to work with the government
simply because of ideological discomfort with the Bush administration.

Yet as Rivers himself concedes, there are sound reasons for such discomfort.
For what most appeals to Republicans about faith-based compassion is the fact
that it reinforces the conservative notion that our social problems are a product
of poor people’s own personal conduct and morality, not structural inequality
that requires governmental action on any meaningful scale. Rivers dismisses this
as “libertarian ideology masking in fundamentalist drag.” But it is an ideology
that many conservative advocates of faith-based initiatives fervently embrace.
President Bush has sought to distance himself from this wing of the GOP by saying
he does not believe religious charities can replace government. But he has also
said that when it comes to helping the poor, “Spending large sums of money and
building an immense bureaucracy” will only “hurt the very people we meant to
help.” Perhaps that is why, during his reign as governor, Texas ranked near the
bottom in categories such as education, health care coverage for children, and
(as a recent U.S. Department of Agriculture study found) the number of people
suffering from hunger–a stark reminder of compassionate conservatism’s

Dismantling the Safety Net in the Name of God

A more cynical reading of Bush’s faith-based politics is that the policy
enables the party that has spent the past few decades dismantling the social
safety net to reclaim the mantle of compassion on the cheap–and, no less
important, to curry favor among potential black voters (and other groups) by
developing relationships with ministers like Rivers. This raises a larger
concern: namely, that the decisions about which religious groups ultimately
receive public funding will be shaped at least in part by politics. While the
Bush administration claims it will base decisions purely on which programs are
most effective, does anybody seriously believe that the Nation of Islam and the
Church of Scientology will compete on a level playing field with conservative
evangelical groups? It was only a few years ago that former Senator Bob Dole and
several other members of Congress pushed the Department of Housing and Urban
Development to terminate contracts between public housing authorities and
security companies affiliated with the Nation of Islam, even though cities like
Baltimore thought the group was effective. There is a built-in tension between
the inherently political process of selection and the principle of government
neutrality toward religious groups.

The danger cuts both ways. Just as government agencies may be tempted to
favor some religions over others in disbursing grants, religious organizations
may gradually sacrifice their independence to safeguard their public funding.
Imagine if, during the civil rights movement, black churches at the forefront of
the struggle had been dependent on the federal government for their financial
survival. Would ministers have acted as boldly in bearing witness to the
inhumanity of segregation? The specter of co-optation is the reason that some
conservatives–including Michael J. Horowitz, director of the Project on
International Religious Liberty at the Hudson Institute, and, it must be said,
Marvin Olasky–are wary about direct government funding to houses of worship. In
a supreme irony, Olasky recently expressed grave reservations about Bush’s plan,
fearing that religious groups could be forced to limit their evangelistic
activities when they accept government funds.

The final problem is that in an effort to strengthen the role of faith in
public life, advocates of government partnerships with religious institutions
will actually diminish its role in our society. Those who favor such partnerships
argue that the strict separation between church and state should give way to the
notion of “equal treatment,” which would allow religious groups to compete for
public funds on a “level playing field” with secular organizations. In this view
(and four current Supreme Court justices have signaled they agree with it),
strict separation is not neutral but discriminatory, creating a “naked public
sphere” that privileges secular groups over all religious ones.

But if we are to take the principle of “equal treatment” seriously, what
exactly is the rationale for sustaining the various special privileges that
religious institutions have long been granted in our society? Derek H. Davis, who
is the director of the J.M. Dawson Institute of Church-State Studies at Baylor
University and the author of many books on the role of religion in public life,
points out that if there is nothing special about religious speech and practices,
then “no valid reason remains for exempting churches and religious organizations
from tax requirements or government regulations.” The Constitution, Davis notes,
deliberately specifies that religious speech and practice are
different–not because the founders were irreligious and sought to discriminate
against people of faith but in order to protect religion from state
intrusion. And the policy has worked: By virtually every conceivable measure,
religion is far more robust in the United States than in countries such as
England, Germany, and the Netherlands, where church and state collaborate

Barring the government from funding pervasively sectarian organizations need
not–and should not–mean deterring religious organizations from involvement in
combating the nation’s social problems. Churches and other religious
organizations have long been free to spin off affiliated organizations that can
apply for and receive government funds. The government can and should encourage
them to do so. Nor would such a ban deter churches and other houses of worship
from participating in a range of other short-term humanitarian activities that,
as studies show, are what the vast majority of congregations actually do. It
would mean barring the government from funding groups like Teen Challenge
that link treatment directly with preaching the Word. Given how little we know
about the effectiveness of such organizations, and how much we do know about the
potential costs in terms of religious and constitutional liberty, this is a small
price to pay.

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