NEW YORK — Ramona Randall sits erect with a sliver cross hanging on her chest, her hands folded on the table in front of her. She is the picture of contentment as the gentle rhythm of women reading psalms in the next room wash over her.
Just over a year ago, the Chicago native was a homeless crack addict who'd been arrested. She tried a traditional drug-treatment program, but to no avail.
Now she's found salvation at New Life for Girls, a Christian drug-treatment center in the Bronx. After spending a year there, Randall is preparing to rejoin the world and her family - clean, sober, and a disciple of God. "You're loved just as you are here," she says. "You're not a form someone has to fill out."
Such stories will provide the main ammunition for conservatives in a holy war about to be waged in Washington.
Today President George W. Bush is expected to announce the creation of a White House office of faith-based programs, setting off a fundamental debate about the separation of church and state - as well as the proper role of the government in helping the needy.
For supporters, Mr. Bush's move is a welcome recognition that spiritual and religious considerations are gaining a foothold in American culture, a development that needs to be reflected in social policy.
"Given the banishing of religious programs from public policy areas over the past 30 or 40 years, it's a good beginning to develop an antidote," says Marvin Olasky, a longtime Bush adviser and senior fellow at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty in Grand Rapids, Mich.
For critics, the office is an affront to the constitutional framers, whom they contend, by insisting on a clear separation between government and religion, allowed both to flourish in America. They also believe the creation of such an office signals that politicians have "washed their hands" of their obligation to help the nation's neediest.
"Now they pray if they drop a bag of money on the church steps one day, and the poor are there the next day, the two will find each other," says the Rev. Barry Lynn, head of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. "I think it's an awful way to try to help some of the most vulnerable people in society, which I think is one of the principle purposes of government itself."
Yes, but it works
Advocates of expanding support for faith-based social services - either through tax incentives or direct grants - see Ms. Randall's experience as a very human counterpoint.
"They take time with you," she says. "If you need to talk, you can talk about it. But if you're a person that talks too much, then they'll tell you that, too. That's what real love does, it disciplines you, it's not just fluff."
The directors of the nondenominational Bronx home, Luis and Wanda Arevalo, say Randall's experience is more the rule than the exception. They estimate they have a success rate of about 80 percent.
But critics point out that no independent academic studies have confirmed that. And even the staunchest defenders of faith-based programs, like Professor Olasky, admit there is little statistical evidence to show that treatment based on religious conversion is any more effective than secular, therapeutic programs.
"From a statistical basis, you don't really have the evidence to prove this, and we'll have to see if this develops," says Olasky. "But there are historical accounts from the late 19th century that showed faith-based groups are very effective." He also relies on the anecdotal cases of people like Randall.
But such optimism does little to satisfy critics, who point out that religious organizations are, by their very nature, evangelical. And for the government to fund them, or support them in anyway at the expense of other social programs, could make society's neediest vulnerable to religious coercion in exchange for basic services.
"To think they can do some of their programs with government money and ignore the roots of their faith is absurd," says Mr. Lynn. "Why start a ministry if you're not planning to minister in a religious way, as well as meeting a service need?"
Other critics point out that, because of their religious affiliation, faith-based organizations are exempt from government scrutiny. That could make them more vulnerable to fraud. They're also exempt from the governmental standards that other social service organizations are required to uphold, which could raise questions about the kind of care that's delivered.
For instance, while few would question that the Arevalos are caring, compassionate, and dedicated directors of New Life who want to help others, neither has academic training in drug treatment.
"I went to the school of hard knocks," says Luis, a construction contractor who volunteered at the house before being asked to direct it.
Street savvy vs. academic training
Yet supporters like Olasky argue that personal experience can often be more powerful in helping to rehabilitate lives than academic learning. They also say structures can be set up to ensure health and safety standards, though some believe the methods themselves should be off limits.
"People who go with faith-based models don't have a huge degree of trust in people who use the therapeutic model," says Olasky. "Is it right and fair to ask them to submit their understandings and programs to people who basically think their philosophies are stupid?"
Keep Uncle Sam out of our books
Still, the notion of any government intervention raises the hackles of some religious organizations. They're wary of the creation of a government office in their name, fearing that it might present "a poisoned chalice."
Mr. Arevalo at New Life echoes some of those concerns. In fact, he's not interested in receiving government funding at the moment. He points out, for instance, that if the home were to accept food stamps, it wouldn't be able to require students to read the Bible, or forbid smoking, or set up other rules that may be perceived to violate an individual's civil rights.
"We don't like the strings that come attached," he says.
But Arevalo is excited that Bush understands the power of religious conversion, and he wants to support programs like New Life. He'd also be willing to accept whatever help Washington gives "as long as it wouldn't cause us to compromise our values."
Ironically, it is this very preservation of values that worries critics like Lynn. He's concerned that the mixing of God and state will undermine the very foundations that have allowed religious freedom to flourish in this country. Once the funding mechanism is clear, his organization will consider whether to challenge the move in court.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society