Forty years after government took over responsibility for solving America's social ills, it is increasingly turning that job back to a traditional source of solace to the poor and needy: churches and other faith-based groups.
The trend, which began with the welfare-reform law of 1996, is about to accelerate.
Congress is currently considering no fewer than 10 bills that would channel more federal money to faith-based groups to fight everything from homelessness and youth violence to teen pregnancy and cocaine addiction. Just as important, both major-party presidential candidates embrace this idea of "charitable choice."
While religious groups in America have a long history of providing social services, the notion that the government should pay them (in the form of grants and contracts) to do so is drawing both praise and concern.
To supporters, charitable choice adds a vital spiritual element to the fight against poverty and addiction. With it, churches can compete with clinics and private groups for federal dollars - without having to edit God out of conversations with clients.
But critics, including some religious groups, say it blurs the distinction between religion and politics in a way that could be harmful to both. Poor people should be able to get a bed, a meal, or job training without risk of being subjected to proselytizing, they say.
"All these provisions working their way through Congress permit government-funded discrimination based on religion," says the Rev. Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State and a minister in the United Church of Christ.
The debut of charitable choice came in 1996, when Congress leveled the playing field for faith-based groups to compete with other organizations for contracts to help welfare clients find jobs.
At least 10 bills now before Congress would extend that option to other federal programs, including housing, drug and violence prevention, literacy, promotion of marriage and parenting, and public health. President Clinton and House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R) of Illinois wrapped charitable choice into their "new markets" antipoverty package, expected to come to the House floor by the end of the month.
Moreover, both presidential candidates are working the language of faith into their stump speeches on social problems. From the start, Texas Gov. George W. Bush made charitable choice a centerpiece of his campaign. If elected, he would establish an office in the White House to "identify barriers to faith-based action."
But when Vice President Al Gore staked out similar ground, he stunned many civil libertarians, who saw the issue as driven by GOP lawmakers. "Ordinary Americans have decided to confront the fact that our severest challenges are not just material, but spiritual," he said in a May 23 speech to the Salvation Army in Atlanta.
Before 1996, groups such as Catholic Charities, Lutheran Social Services, and Jewish social-service agencies had received government funds, on condition that they provide services in a secular way. Charitable choice allows them to express religious views - and hire or fire staff on religious grounds - without risk of losing funding.
But it also includes protections for clients. No one is required to pray or take part in religious services to get benefits. Nor can benefits be linked to whether a client adopts the faith.
Church groups that had been reluctant to apply for federal funding under the old rules are taking a second look. Since 1996, hundreds of congregations and faith-based organizations have established new collaborations with government on welfare issues, according to a recent nine-state report by the Center for Public Justice, a Christian policy research organization in Annapolis, Md.
Instead of just providing food or clothing for the poor, church-affiliated groups are moving into direct interventions, such as providing long-term mentoring, career training, or child care for people who work odd hours. More than one-half of the faith-based groups now involved in such initiatives had never before partnered with government.
"Community and faith-based organizations provide a much more personal approach to providing services than a clinical, professionalized social-service organization," says Stephen Lazarus, a CPJ researcher.
The combination of religion and federal funds raises challenges both for church groups and for a democracy founded on the principle of separation of church and state.
Most churches and state officials don't understand the protections in the new law, says Amy Sherman, a fellow at the Hudson Institute and author of CPJ's study. Civil libertarians, meanwhile, worry that the needy may not understand they can opt out of religious aspects of a program - or ask that government provide an alternative.
Even when all protections are understood, the mix of taxpayer money and a religious mission is tough to manage, says Robert Polito, who launched a program for homeless drug addicts in New York in 1993, which is funded by the city and faith-based groups. "You have got to walk on egg shells, because it could change the mission of what your organization is trying to do," he says. "Most churches are trying to bring people to the faith ... and it doesn't have anything to do with government."
Some trace the roots of charitable choice to Roman Catholic social theory, which claims a distinct role for churches and civil society in solving social ills.
Others cite Dutch Calvinist statesman Abraham Kuyper, who as prime minister in the early 1900s changed his nation's laws to permit equal treatment of religious schools. In fact, many see charitable choice as a step along a road that could lead to government treating religious schools just as it does public schools - an issue the US Supreme Court will address this month.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society