100-Year-Old Idea Inspires Proposals to Revamp Welfare: Pluralism Offers Role for Religion

Article excerpt

The Netherlands of the 1890s may seem a far cry from America of the 1990s, but it has inspired some of the thinking behind today's proposals to reform welfare.

Like Americans today, the Dutch debated the rival claims of socialism and individualism in search of a just society, says James Skillen, director of the Center for Public Justice in Annapolis.

Into that debate stepped Abraham Kuyper (1837-1920), a Reformed Church minister-turned-journalist, social reformer and prime minister. His solution was neither statism nor libertarianism, but pluralism.

In Kuyper's pluralism, "the roles of government, families, schools, church and other groups are clearly differentiated," says Mr. Skillen, a longtime student of Kuyper's approach to a modern state. Kuyper envisioned a limited secular state that aided, but did not control, the ability of families and various social groups to assist in education and public welfare.

By way of Kuyper's Calvinism, Mr. Skillen arrived at policy positions that others reached by other paths.

"It has the makings of a movement," says Michael Gerson, a Kuyper initiate and policy director for Sen. Daniel R. Coats, Indiana Republican.

An influential proponent of pluralism is Boston University's Charles L. Glenn, for 21 years a top Massachusetts education official.

"We need to have autonomy in schools, not just choice," Mr. Glenn says. On a family biking trip in Holland, he read Mr. Skillen's ideas, learned of Kuyper and saw the Dutch system.

"They have a totally different conception of schooling as an expression of civil society rather than as a state," Mr. Glenn says.

School-choice experiments are afoot in Wisconsin and Ohio, but the only "pluralist" plans before Congress concern welfare reform.

A bill introduced by Sen. John Ashcroft, Missouri Republican, states that under block grants to states "religious organizations are eligible, on the same basis as any other private organization, to provide assistance as contractors or to accept certificates and vouchers" in welfare services.

In Mr. Coats' office, Mr. Gerson led a policy team in drafting 19 bills that would allow tax incentives and grants to private social service groups, including religious ones.

"The key to success is active, vital communities that support what citizen groups do," says Mr. Gerson, a former aide to Charles Colson in his Prison Fellowship Ministries and to Jack Kemp, former head of the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Another influence on the Coats and Ashcroft initiatives is a Skillen colleague at the Center for Public Justice, Stanley Carlson-Theis, a Kuyperian political science professor. His 1994 Welfare Responsibility Project was feeding ideas to the Gerson team by April 1995.

The man behind the Ashcroft measure, University of Missouri law professor Carl Esbeck, is not a Kuyperian but was briefly in that orbit.

Mr. Esbeck began his philosophical journey to "institutional pluralism" after reading a 1968 Harvard Law Review article. It said the state had grown so large that Thomas Jefferson's "wall of separation" between church and state was dysfunctional.

"Government is so involved in everything in society, that to leave religion alone, to have neutrality, is to discriminate against religion," says Mr. Esbeck, who has provided legal defense for nonprofit groups.

A law to remedy the discrimination made perfect sense to Mr. Ashcroft, who as Missouri governor in 1992 led the presidential Task Force on Urban Families. …