February 3, 2001
For the first
time in history, an American president has set a national goal of
meeting social needs by looking ''first to faith-based programs and
community groups, which have proven their power to save and change
lives,'' as George W. Bush put it.
''We will not
fund the religious activities of any group, but when people of faith
provide social services, we will not discriminate against them,'' he
said at the White House Monday. ''As long as there are secular
alternatives, faith-based charities should be able to compete for
funding on an equal basis and in a manner that does not cause them to
sacrifice their mission.''
Like what? How
about running prisons?
noted that as Governor of Texas, he overcame the skepticism of prison
officials to encourage an experiment three years ago in which the
Christian ministry, Prison Fellowship (PF), created by Watergate
ex-felon Chuck Colson - was allowed to take over the management of a
prison wing with an explicitly Christian program to change inmate
The result? Of
the 80 inmates who have completed ''InnerChange,'' and been released
back into society over the last 18 months, only three have been
rearrested. That's a failure rate below 5 percent, compared to a
national average of 40-60 percent. Not surprisingly, this success has
led to PF running similar prisons in Iowa and Kansas and inspired
invitations from 20 more to do so.
However, up to
this point, virtually all of PF's costs of management have been raised
privately, so that critics of church-state cooperation have had no
targets to shoot at.
Colson, one the
national leaders of a faith-based ministry who was present when Bush
announced his new initiative, has mobilized an extraordinary 50,000
Prison Fellowship volunteers who bring the Gospel to prisoners behind
bars and delivered ''Angel Tree'' gifts to 580,000 children last
Christmas. But PF had never been allowed to immerse prisoners in a
Christian atmosphere until Bush gave the ministry an opportunity to do
Does this mean
Prison Fellowship will be soon receiving federal dollars to run federal
prisons or to begin working in more state prisons? Not necessarily,
while Bush's press release proposed new funds for faith-based
pre-release programs in prison. As Bush said the next day at the Fishing
School, a Christian after-school program for at risk children,
''Government, of course, cannot fund, and will not fund, religious
activities.'' InnerChange is thoroughly religious.
according to Carl Esbeck, an expert in ''charitable choice,'' is that
the U.S. Supreme Court prohibits any step by government which
''establishes religion.'' However, it is increasingly tolerant of
initiatives that treat people on a religiously neutral basis. The PF
Board may also refuse to request federal funds, due to a limited
capacity to manage additional prisons, or to a fear of becoming a target
for a costly lawsuit.
charitable organizations have long accepted government contracts to
provide services. Catholic Charities actually received the majority of
its funds in 1999 from government, 62 percent of a $2.3 billion budget.
World Vision accepted $90 million of funding, 23 percent of its funding,
from government to provide disaster relief, child survival assistance
and water programs. ''World Vision is not a church, but a religious
organization,'' says Bruce Wilkinson, vice president. ''We do not
proselytize, but work with partner agencies who do that.''
Bush's hope is
to fund grassroots religious and community groups who are working to
relieve ''suffering in the shadow of America's affluence, problems like
addiction and abandonment and gang violence, domestic violence, mental
illness and homelessness,'' as he put it.
DiIlulio, the new head of the White House Office of Faith-Based and
Community Initiatives, studied 2,000 Philadelphia churches and found 91
percent had at least one major service to the poor, such as a food
pantry, offered by 48 percent. A fifth had a prison program. He said,
''Virtually none of the congregations made a profession of faith a
condition to receive the service.'' In Texas, encouraged by Bush, many
churches are helping women get off welfare.
Bush also sent
Congress a proposal on Tuesday week to permit charitable deductions for
80 million non-itemizers. A PricewaterhouseCoopers study estimated those
deductions should stimulate an additional $14.6 billion of charitable
giving, an 11 percent increase in charitable giving and 11.7 million new
donors! Other proposals: a $500-per-person state tax credit for
poverty-related donations, and an expansion of tax deductible donations
by corporations from 10 percent of income to 15 percent.
Bush is creating an extraordinary new opportunities for people of faith
- to live their faith in ways to help others. It truly is compassionate
Copyright 2001 Michael J.