War on Poverty Enlists Churches ; Congress and the Presidential Candidates Look to Faith-Based Groups to Pick Up for the Shrinking US Government

Article excerpt

Forty years after government took over responsibility for solving America's social ills, it is increasingly turning that job back to a traditional source of solace to the poor and needy: churches and other faith-based groups.

The trend, which began with the welfare-reform law of 1996, is about to accelerate.

Congress is currently considering no fewer than 10 bills that would channel more federal money to faith-based groups to fight everything from homelessness and youth violence to teen pregnancy and cocaine addiction. Just as important, both major-party presidential candidates embrace this idea of "charitable choice."

While religious groups in America have a long history of providing social services, the notion that the government should pay them (in the form of grants and contracts) to do so is drawing both praise and concern.

To supporters, charitable choice adds a vital spiritual element to the fight against poverty and addiction. With it, churches can compete with clinics and private groups for federal dollars - without having to edit God out of conversations with clients.

But critics, including some religious groups, say it blurs the distinction between religion and politics in a way that could be harmful to both. Poor people should be able to get a bed, a meal, or job training without risk of being subjected to proselytizing, they say.

"All these provisions working their way through Congress permit government-funded discrimination based on religion," says the Rev. Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State and a minister in the United Church of Christ.

The debut of charitable choice came in 1996, when Congress leveled the playing field for faith-based groups to compete with other organizations for contracts to help welfare clients find jobs.

At least 10 bills now before Congress would extend that option to other federal programs, including housing, drug and violence prevention, literacy, promotion of marriage and parenting, and public health. President Clinton and House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R) of Illinois wrapped charitable choice into their "new markets" antipoverty package, expected to come to the House floor by the end of the month.

Moreover, both presidential candidates are working the language of faith into their stump speeches on social problems. From the start, Texas Gov. George W. Bush made charitable choice a centerpiece of his campaign. If elected, he would establish an office in the White House to "identify barriers to faith-based action."

But when Vice President Al Gore staked out similar ground, he stunned many civil libertarians, who saw the issue as driven by GOP lawmakers. "Ordinary Americans have decided to confront the fact that our severest challenges are not just material, but spiritual," he said in a May 23 speech to the Salvation Army in Atlanta.

Before 1996, groups such as Catholic Charities, Lutheran Social Services, and Jewish social-service agencies had received government funds, on condition that they provide services in a secular way. …