Spring 2000, Vol. 3, No. 1

Contents Page,
Vol. 3, No. 1


Quick Links
to other articles
in this issue:
From the Editor: Wars of Religion

Religious Ironies in East Timor

Jesus, Political Philosopher

Faithless in Seattle? The WTO Protests

What's in a Name? The EgyptAir 990 Crash

Waiting for the Shoe to Drop

The NCC's Near-Death Experience

On the Beat: Condoms and Constitutions in Kenya

Letters to the Editor


Charitable Choice and the New Religious Center

by Dennis R. HooverCover-art.gif (321325 bytes)

What a difference a presidential election makes. Two years ago charitable choice, the section of the 1996 welfare reform law that encourages "faith-based organizations" to participate in government-funded welfare programs, was barely on the journalistic radar screen. In 1999 it became a campaign issue, and has since come to dominate the welfare policy debate. But the nature and significance of what President Clinton has called the "emerging consensus" on faith-based social services has largely been missed. For behind the politics and the policy discussion, charitable choice heralds something that hasn’t been seen for decades—the rise of an activist religious center in American public life.

George W. Bush, the first governor to aggressively implement the charitable choice concept, put the issue into play when he emerged as the presumptive GOP frontrunner early in 1999. What really caught the media’s attention, however, was Vice President Al Gore’s embrace of the concept in a May 24 speech at an Atlanta Salvation Army drug rehabilitation center. Rather than serving as a wedge issue for Republicans to use against Democrats wedded to separation of church and state, charitable choice suddenly became the occasion of bipartisan convergence on the campaign trail. The only thing politicians seemed to want to fight about was who was more in favor of it.

This dynamic even filtered into the Senate race in New York, when New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani alleged in a fall fund-raising letter that Hillary Rodham Clinton exhibited anti-religious hostility by, among other things, attacking Gov. Bush’s charitable choice initiatives. When the letter surfaced in February, Mrs. Clinton fired back, pledging her support for government funding of faith-based social services (provided it is constitutional).

At the presidential level, journalists focused on the question of strategic positioning for the general election. Public opinion polls certainly suggested that a purely electoral logic might have had something to do with candidates’ rhetoric. In July, for example, an NBC-Wall Street Journal poll found 76 percent of Americans in favor of "giving federal funds to private groups, including religious organizations, to deal with social problems."

In a typical assessment, Associated Press writer Sandra Sobieraj surmised that the Vice President’s endorsement of charitable choice "sneaks some ground out from under Republicans who have long dominated the morals debate; and, less overtly, may serve to disassociate him from Clinton’s personal scandals." Dick Polman of the Philadelphia Inquirer saw the speech as a "Sister Souljah" move, with Gore putting light between himself and his party’s left wing by decrying a false choice of "hollow secularism or right-wing religion."

A similar "positioning for moderates" analysis followed from Bush’s July 22 "Duty of Hope" speech, in which the Texas governor vowed, "In every instance where my administration sees a responsibility to help people, we will look first to faith-based organizations, charities, and community groups." While noting that Bush’s speech contained detailed policy proposals, the Washington Post’s Terry M. Neal highlighted the political purposes of the speech: "At least as significant as the proposals was the rhetoric he used to dispel the image some voters hold of the Republican party as cold and mean-spirited." The AP’s Mike Smith saw Bush attempting to articulate "conservative principles without hurting the poor or alienating moderate voters."

Strict church-state separationists let out the predictable howls of protest. "To call us ‘hollow’ is insulting and divisive," Elliot Mincberg of People for the American Way fumed to the Philadelphia Inquirer after the Vice President’s speech. "I’m sure Gore is sincere about his faith, but why embrace the agenda of the Christian Coalition?"

Barry Lynn of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, the perennial "go-to" guy in such situations, told PBS’s News Hour With Jim Lehrer, "I think it’s in the nature of the church to be evangelical, and it’s very difficult—in fact, I think it’s impossible—to separate the function of trying to save souls from the function of trying to provide these social services in that same church setting. That’s why I think these things are clearly unconstitutional." Charles Moore, a Methodist pastor with the Texas Faith Network, was, well, less charitable, telling the AP, "Charitable choice opens the door more than anything that I have seen in my lifetime to the church being able to take over the state and turn this nation into a theocracy."

In line with these attitudes, a number of journalists treated charitable choice as part of a right-wing legislative agenda that includes allowing the posting of the Ten Commandments in public schools, school prayer, and creation of a national day of prayer and fasting. Yet it turned out that some leading conservative voices were decidedly unenthusiastic about what was supposed to be their favored approach to social welfare policy.

The Detroit News, for example, editorialized on August 2 that Bush should stop dishing out "warmed-over liberalism" and just cut taxes across-the-board, a sentiment shared by sometime presidential candidate Steve Forbes. In "Subsidies May Cost Churches Their Souls," a December 16 Wall Street Journal op-ed piece, former Reagan administration official Michael Horowitz argued that the way to support faith-based charities was to provide tax credits for those who voluntarily donated to them. Marvin Olasky, albeit described in the September 12 New York Times Magazine as "the godfather of ‘compassionate conservatism,’" was on record in USA Today saying that the requirements of charitable choice amounted to a "gag rule" on "theologically tough" programs; he too preferred tax credits.

Although charitable choice originated with conservative Christian members of Congress (principally Missouri Sen. John Ashcroft), it fits awkwardly with the rest of the agenda. Bush himself stressed that charitable choice is not simple volunteerism. Rather, it is a set of rules attached to block grant funds specifically designated for welfare programs. If states open up welfare services to any private providers, religious charities must now be allowed to apply—but the money will be spent regardless.

Furthermore, as the conservative critics pointed out, charitable choice involves religious institutions directly in doing work for the government. And it specifically requires that all faith-based organizations (Buddhist and Baptist, Nation of Islam and Wiccan) be allowed to apply. Indeed, some journalists picked up on an irony revealed in a study of over 1,200 congregations conducted by sociologist Mark Chaves of the University of Arizona: conservative congregations are less likely than liberal ones to be interested in applying for charitable choice funds.

So where is the true spiritual home of charitable choice? Religiously, its principles are most congruent with several groups that, until now, the liberal-conservative culture war has overshadowed: white Roman Catholics, black Protestants, and white evangelical moderates and progressives. While these groups possess generally conservative theological and moral sensibilities, they share a social ethic that demands care for the poor, and not just through private charity.

In a 1998 Newsweek package on the Rev. Eugene Rivers of Boston, a black Pentecostal and prominent advocate of faith-based solutions to social problems, religion editor Kenneth Woodward put his finger on the new synergies that are developing between the social activism of white Catholics and black Protestants. (Cardinal Bernard Law called Rivers’ agenda "a pro-poor, pro-family, pro-life platform that I can enthusiastically support.") Summarizing the philosophical underpinnings of this new ecumenism, Woodward described a conception of society "as an interdependent organism rather than a social contract between isolated individuals" that recognizes that "proper human development requires civic space for a range of institutions: family, neighborhood, religious and other voluntary associations…. The moral community is one that balances individual goods with those of civil society and the state. Charity, yes, but also social justice."

Writing last August in the Weekly Standard, political scientist John DiIulio—perhaps the leading professorial advocate of faith-based approaches—explained the "political theory" of compassionate conservatism by invoking "subsidiarity," a central norm of Catholic teaching on how government should relate to family and civil society. Protestant appreciation of such traditional Catholic social teachings reflects the dramatic decline of anti-Catholicism in America, wrote the Washington Post’s E.J. Dionne in an October 3 column, adding, "The turn of the millennium in America may well be remembered as a time when the country renegotiated the relationship between religion and public life, faith and culture."

Then there are the evangelicals. Journalists seeking the intellectual origins of charitable choice would have done better to turn less to conservatives like Olasky and more to moderates like Stanley Carlson-Thies of the Center for Public Justice. Rooted in the Reformed (Calvinist) stream of moderate evangelicalism, the Center is a think tank and advocacy group that has for decades been trying to persuade evangelicals to think about politics in terms of justice for a pluralistic society. Carl Esbeck of the University of Missouri Law School, who helped design charitable choice for Sen. Ashcroft, has written for the Center, and is now at the Christian Legal Society, another evangelical group that backs charitable choice.

Charitable choice also aligns with the basic goals of the small evangelical progressive movement—yes, Virginia, there is such a movement. Ronald Sider and Tony Campolo of Evangelicals for Social Action and Jim Wallis of Sojourners and the Call to Renewal began pricking the evangelical conscience about justice for the poor long before the rise of the religious right. When Pennsylvania’s Lancaster Intelligencer Journal caught up with him January 22, Sider (a Mennonite theologian and activist whose books include Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger) was in classic form, simultaneously reaching out to the religious right and scolding it: "Being pro-family is not a conservative agenda. It’s a crucial component of any search for justice for the poor."

Progressive evangelicals have always insisted that responsibility for the poor is both individual and corporate. It is why, despite deep suspicions about the 1996 welfare reform, Wallis and his colleagues have been sponsoring roundtable conferences that bring together groups ranging from the Family Research Council on the right to the National Council of Churches on the left to discuss how to make charitable choice work.

Covering one such conference in 1997, Washington Post reporter Caryle Murphy noted a new spirit in the air. "To support welfare reform and not be here is to be a hypocrite," Richard Cizik of the National Association of Evangelicals said. "The cold war among religious groups over the poor is over." While that seems overly optimistic, Daniel Borenstein’s excellent article in the October 3 Contra Costa Times was on the money in claiming that welfare reform "marks the emergence of the religious middle in politics."

But if charitable choice is the rallying point of this new religious alignment, a host of uncertainties, ambiguities, and problems remain. First and foremost, will faith-based organizations make any actual difference for America’s poor? For religious groups, participation in charitable choice is, after all, just an option, not a draft notice. Will evangelical charities enlist, as Cizik challenges them to do? Will the mainline Protestant denominations sign up, even though they may be opposed to other parts of welfare reform and will have to tolerate the idea that pervasively and nonpervasively religious charities are equally eligible?

Much also depends on the knowledge and attitudes of state and local officials. Legally, charitable choice eligibility rules are supposed to over ride any conflicting state law (including state constitutions). Only a handful of reporters have explored the actual or potential conflicts arising from this.

It is also important to realize that charitable choice is part of a block grant system in which states, not individuals, decide how and where funds will be disbursed. Gov. Bush does want to expand charitable choice, but a prominent part of his plan to increase the flow of resources to faith-based social services relies on tax deductions and credits for the charitable giving of individual taxpayers. While tax incentives encourage individuals to give, they also cede control over the distribution of resources in a way that charitable choice contracting does not. Jonathan Koppell, scholar-in-residence at the New America Foundation, cracked in a December 19 Los Angeles Times opinion column that tax credits subject social policy to a popularity contest where "the charity that secures Claudia Schiffer as spokesperson is more likely to succeed than the rival endorsed by Abe Vigoda."

Vice President Gore’s gushing over faith-based social welfare programs raises different questions. Declaring that their "religious character … is so often key to their effectiveness," Gore nonetheless insisted that government would not be party to promoting "a particular religious view." But there should be no confusion. Charitable choice allows religious charities to offer religious instruction; they just have to respect client’s wishes to opt out. (And for clients who don’t want to go to a religious provider in the first place, states must provide an equivalent secular program.)

Scripps Howard News Service columnist Terry Mattingly wondered how Gore expects to have it both ways: "Vice President Al Gore has faith in the power of faith, as long as faith-based groups that take government money are willing to forgo asking people to embrace any particular faith. Hopefully, details of this generic, non-sectarian, yet life-changing brand of faith—faith in faith itself—will emerge later in the race for the White House."

There is also the issue of accounting for the use of public funds. In services contracted under charitable choice rules, no public funds can be "expended for sectarian worship, instruction, or proselytization." If advocacy for a particular religious view occurs as part of the program, it must not only have an opt-out provision, but also be paid for by demonstrably private contributions. The rules against commingling public and private funds here are analogous to those that govern lobbying by nonprofit recipients of government grants. Although ideological forces line up differently, the underlying problem of fungible government funds is similar.

But the most immediate question is whether charitable choice is constitutional. Separationists are trolling for a test case, but it won’t be an easy one to litigate. As the Washington Post editorial page succinctly put it on December 6, when it comes to government aid for religious nonprofits, "the reality is that this area of the law is a muddle." A pre-welfare reform study by Stephen Monsma of Pepperdine University confirmed that practice is equally muddled. Monsma found extensive public funding of religious nonprofits. (Some programs have long had rules, or gentleman’s agreements, similar to charitable choice.) He also noted wide variation in how overtly religious the programs were, and arbitrary enforcement of church-state boundaries.

For their part, the intellectual architects of charitable choice have articulated a theory of "equal treatment" or "positive neutrality" that they feel represents the correct understanding of the First Amendment’s ban on religious establishments. This theory advances the view that government should treat all civil society actors with the same benevolent impartiality—no favoritism for one religious tradition or theological style over another, and no favoritism for secularism over religion. It is meant to replace the strict separationist doctrine that the Court adopted in the 1970s, which (in theory if not in practice) allowed no government aid to flow to religious groups (that is, unless they stripped themselves of any "pervasive" religion).

The religious right has charged that secularism and liberal religious worldviews are unfairly privileged in the world of no-aid separationism, and on this most charitable choice advocates would agree. Esbeck himself argues in a chapter of the recent book, Welfare Reform & Faith-Based Organizations, that strict separationism is not in the end religiously neutral: "It is a classic case of the liberal seemingly oblivious to his or her being illiberal."

Sara Fritz’s June 18 article in the St. Petersburg Times and Robert Greenberger’s August 24 Wall Street Journal piece touched on the church-state theory underlying charitable choice, but they were exceptions among journalists. If recent rulings in education-related cases are any indication, neutrality theory (in some form) is gaining favor at the Supreme Court.

Should charitable choice pass constitutional muster, it will set new ground rules for American religious pluralism. Jeffrey Rosen, legal affairs editor of The New Republic, wrote in the January 30 New York Times Magazine that the new era of "equal treatment" means religion will be "just another aspect of identity politics in a multicultural age." In Rosen’s words, it represents an "abandonment of the liberal faith that, before entering the public square, all citizens should set aside the aspects of their identities that are not susceptible to debate."

Others were less sanguine. In a December 1 commentary for the Scripps Howard News Service, Bonnie Erbe, host of the PBS program, To the Contrary, argued, "We’re one of the few countries in the world where vastly differing faiths—Christian, Jewish, Islamic, Buddhist, etc.—live together in peace. But if Uncle Sam starts doling out large chunks of funds to religious charities … [s]ome charities will proselytize with those funds … and worse, faiths will undoubtedly start competing with each other and complaining about federal favoritism."

Advocates maintain that charitable choice clearly forbids publicly funded proselytization, and insist that it is no more subject to rank patronage politics than any existing government program. And while agreeing on the importance of peaceful coexistence among religions, they see no danger from a little healthy competition. Pluralism, yes, but robust pluralism.

Electoral politics notwithstanding, charitable choice is far from a "middle ground" of motherhood-and-apple-pie consensus. The ground it occupies is more like a battlefield no-man’s land -- contested and filled with pitfalls. But if the new religious center succeeds in occupying it, the culture wars will never be the same.