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.

States "generally have avoided legally binding definitions in their contracts, especially as to what constitutes proselytization," notes the Welfare Information Network's guide to charitable choice. "Instead, dialogue and 'gut instinct' are guiding the implementation of the ban."

What happens if you're gutless?
"The only thing we watch out for is to make certain the organization can meet the criteria outlined in the proposal," says Jones of DFS. They monitor the contract, in other words. And states can't refuse to contract with an organization on the basis of its religious character. So if frothing zealots write a good contract? "Luckily, we haven't been faced with that issue yet," says Jones. "We would probably meet with this group."

He's counting on the caliber of the FBOs already contracted. And the kinder, gentler clergy running those programs are assuming zealots won't apply.

Christian Nation?
Will the state sit up straighter if the new providers are Hare Krishna, or Sikh, or the Church of Scientology? Nobody's talking about that, because tacitly, everybody knows that the groups who get the funding will be mainline and mainly Christian. Running down the list of contracts, you'd never know there are as many Muslims as Presbyterians in this country; that the population of Hindus has increased 10-fold since 1977; that Buddhism, the Jehovah's Witnesses, the Assemblies of God and the Church of God in Christ are growing far faster than Catholicism or Episcopalianism; that the number of Mormons doubled while the Methodists' rolls dropped 38 percent.

State Rep. Pat Kelley (R-Kansas City), who's also a United Methodist minister, is working on Operation Hope to involve more religious groups -- but so far, they're all Christian churches. "I'm of a Christian background," he says, "so I have more contacts there and have been invited to those churches. But this whole concept is open to all faiths."

It's open the way a door's open at the end of a dark maze; if you don't have a map or a compass, you might never enter. DFS advertises its open bids in newspapers, notes Jones, "and when we talk to different groups we let them know." Mims says that may be part of the problem: "The traditional mainline churches have the agencies and the leadership that's connected with the state. The Islamic community, for example, probably has not been involved because they have not had the same relationships and communication."

Lions and Lambs
It was conservative politicians who pushed charitable choice, but it's not conservative religions that are applying for the money. In fact, the political and denominational labels seem to be softening altogether, as the Pentecostalists, storefront churches and mainline Presbyterians confront basic human needs. Harvey's gone to national multifaith meetings vigilant for hyperevangelism, factionalism and right-wing idiocy; instead, he's found "an overarching ideology (emphasizing) empowerment and liberation, respect of diversity, meeting people where they are rather than imposing your thing on them. It's a more universal kind of faith understanding, centered in an understanding of Holy Spirit."

Harvey's so moved by what he's seeing, he won't even call himself a liberal anymore. "Liberals," he's decided, "are people who talk all the time and don't do a danged thing. I'd rather take one fundamentalist who's out there doing something -- because you can't stay locked in a simple literalism for very long if you're out in the world doing what the Bible tells you to do."

That, at least, is the hope.

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