For decades, America's churches have been hesitant to take government money in their fight against poverty. Whenever "faith-based" groups accept public funds for social services, they have been expected to remove religious symbols from sanctuary walls and avoid talk of spirituality.
Those days are over. Under the welfare reform bill signed by President Clinton last year, America's 350,000 congregations will be allowed to establish taxpayer-funded counseling, job-training, and day-care programs grounded in theology.
Although these programs must be voluntary, and states and cities will have to find secular alternatives for welfare recipients who desire them, the new law has touched off a fiery debate about the proper role of churches in addressing social problems.
Advocates note that under the new welfare laws, many of the nation's 5 million dependent families will exhaust their benefits in two years, and the looming system of block grants will limit state resources. It's only logical, they say, to tap community groups, especially ones that can address the emotional and spiritual needs of poor people.
Critics worry that religious programs will be difficult to supervise, and will undermine the constitutionally mandated separation of church and state.
Either way, it's a social experiment whose time has come.
A 'charitable choice'
"Most religious institutions have been opposed to taking funds because of the bureaucratic mess it creates," says Kevin Hunter, a ministry director for Worldvision. "I think the church will look at this as an opportunity to live out its mandate to serve the poor."
The provision of the welfare reform bill called "charitable choice" lets organizations accept state money without compromising their religious character. And nowhere has charitable choice been more warmly embraced than here in Texas. Next month, social service agencies here will unveil plans for involving religious groups in the state's welfare-to-work program.
In his first term, Texas Gov. George W. Bush has introduced a slew of bills in the legislature that would allow "faith-based" organizations to participate in state-funded job-training, child-care, and prison counseling programs.
Following this lead, officials in Virginia, Michigan, Mississippi, and Washington State are also pursuing charitable choice options. Maryland has instituted a pilot program that allows churches to "adopt" willing welfare recipients and assume control of their benefits.
According to Stanley Carlson-Thies, a policy analyst at the Center for Public Justice in Annapolis, Md., the state's program is too young and too small to provide any conclusive data. At present, he says, most statehouses are preoccupied with more pressing challenges - like developing additional job training and child care programs for recipients and preparing databases.
But the slow progress does not reflect the enthusiastic reception charitable choice has received nationwide. According to Carl Esbeck, a University of Missouri Law professor who helped write the legislation, empirical studies show that social programs run by religious groups are four times as successful as secular versions.
The reason, he says, is that faith-based programs "acknowledge the reality of the integrated person." Solving problems like dependency, he says, requires care providers to address people's emotional and spiritual sides, not just their physical and intellectual needs.
"Those who work in the trenches have learned that nonprofits generally, and faith-based groups especially, are better at solving social pathologies and problems like addiction," says Jim Wallis, executive director of Sojourners - a Washington-based Christian group. "We want government to provide guidelines and accountability, but we need more diversification."
According to Mr. Wallis, federal involvement could help churches in disadvantaged neighborhoods better coordinate their service efforts and look within their own congregations for answers to the problem of joblessness. "If every church in America just hired one family," Mr. Clinton told clergymen at a recent White House prayer breakfast, "the welfare problem would go way down."
Still, charitable choice worries many. The foremost concern, says Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, is that the new law will force some people to go to church to get benefits to which they are entitled. When churches administer government funds, he says, it presents the possibility that welfare recipients will end up awaiting their checks "in a church lobby watching an evangelical video."
Short of hiring "religion police," Mr. Lynn says, there's no realistic mechanism for overseeing the charitable efforts of faith-based groups. Furthermore, he argues, the infusion of government money could lead many congregants to scale back their donations, assuming government will fill the void. And he adds that ministers should be wary of opening their books to federal auditors - just as lawmakers should be hesitant to give churches a stake in the policymaking process.
"This law reflects an incredible naivet about what churches do," Lynn says. "I think it will pollute the religious mission of churches, not enhance it."
Indeed, some members of the religious community are skeptical of the plan. John Stoesz, director of the Dallas Community of Churches, notes that many religious institutions are already struggling to maintain current programs. The majority of churches in North Texas are small, he notes, and the largest congregations tend to be in prosperous suburbs far from areas where most welfare recipients reside.
"I think the faith community could do more," he says, "but it's unrealistic to expect them to pick up all of the slack."