Breaking Down the Wall

A quiet revolution is taking place as religious groups begin ministering to the poor using government money -- and succeeding where government couldn't. But eternal vigilance may be the real price.

The Root of Evil
Money's the next problem. First, there's not enough. So if the state thinks religion will bring infinite nongovernment resources to these programs and reduce their costs dramatically, they'd better start praying themselves. "Religious communities certainly can do much of 'what works' but cannot provide basic sustenance," notes Harvey, "or manage major redistribution mechanisms in a climate with rapidly increasing income disparity. People need bread as well as communion."

Second, what money does exist could be an occasion for sin. Church-state expert Davis dreads "the temptation to take this money and use it for things that are unauthorized. There are going to be some abuses," he predicts. "You'll see them on 60 Minutes. And it's going to smudge the face of religion."

Rick Rosenfeld, a professor of criminology at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, has logged many hours evaluating community programs. "Will funding encourage charlatans?" he asks. "Oh, yeah. Sure. But car manufacturers produce lemons. That's no reason to stop the manufacture of cars." Nor is the inevitable competition any reason to exclude FBOs. When the spigot of funding starts gushing, it does dissolve old incentives to cooperate; you simply "have to be very watchful of trying to develop 'community partnerships' under those conditions.

"I think it's the very expression of religion publicly that bothers a lot of liberals," Rosenfeld says suddenly. "That's too damn bad for them. We are in a society that extols religious freedom, and you can't closet religion. There will be times when, like it or not, you will have to cast your gaze upon somebody else's religious ritual."

Rosenfeld's objection is not the expression of religion but the immaturity of a society that expects it to transform poverty. "We're forever looking for childlike solutions to adult problems," he remarks. "It used to be that we tried to solve all our problems through education, and look what happened to the public schools. Now we have turned the same set of demands onto the faith community. If you stretch the boundaries of an organization too broadly, you begin to erode its central mission."

Silent Rights
In theory, charitable choice protects individuals by guaranteeing their right to an alternative program, if an FBO makes them squirm in their seats. There's just one catch: The federal provision doesn't require states to notify individuals that they have this right.

Since the charitable-choice provision passed, Carl H. Esbeck, the Isabelle Wade and Paul C. Lyda Professor of Law at the University of Missouri-Columbia, has repeatedly recommended inserting certain language into the state's contracts with FBOs. Most significantly, he'd notify individuals that they may not be discriminated against on the basis of religion, a religious belief or refusal to participate in a religious practice. "If you object to a particular provider because of its religious character," his proposal reads, "you may request assignment to a different provider. If you believe your rights have been violated.... "

DFS never bothered. "We have done contracts with religious organizations for years," explains spokesperson Deb Hendricks. "Proselytization has not been an issue, and we don't anticipate that it's an issue here, either." Tom Jones, associate director for welfare reform, stresses that "participants are free to choose any program they wish." Then he admits they only learn of other programs by chance, through "advertisement by the program or word of mouth." What happens if the unthinkable does occur, and someone believes her rights have been violated? "She calls DFS." Calls, in other words, the agency that's already admitted it never won these clients' trust.

Agencies like C-FAR are taking it upon themselves to do the notification. But the state might not want to presume that every agency will make their clients' rights this clear; that no FBO would dream of proselytizing; that the boundaries aren't blurring in a new and challenging way; that clients aren't vulnerable. What happens when a woman's an atheist, or has had an ungodly number of abortions; or just realized she's a lesbian; or hasn't healed from sex abuse by her minister?

Repent and Be Rich
More generically, what happens when poverty is cast as personal sin?
Jeanette Mott Oxford, executive director of the Reform Organization for Welfare, says she's glad to see FBOs play a part: "I think poverty is everybody's business, and we all have to pitch in together to solve it." But? "But many churches assume that poverty is a moral flaw and good welfare reform is about making the person feel ashamed of what they've done wrong. I don't believe we should coerce people with any kind of power over them, even if the power comes from God. Especially if the power comes from God.

"Some are probably doing it well, especially congregations that have poor people in them," she continues. "But they are often charismatic and evangelical, and no wonder -- if you are poor, your life needs a glimpse of heaven. Still, they're often oriented toward personal sin instead of social sin. Toward the next world instead of this one. And toward transformation through miraculous works, instead of the slow grind that's often necessary."

So what do you do, insist they keep their worldview to themselves? That's a violation of their free-speech rights. Monitoring evangelism is like barricading angels: There's just no mechanism for it. Even if you installed a full, unconstitutional surveillance system, hundreds of earnest, innocuous remarks would slip through, full of assumptions about who's good, who's bad, who's saved and how to live. And it's that kind of implicit judgment, arrogance, zeal and presumption -- not good ol' doctrinal argument -- that suffocates a nonbeliever.

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