Faith Healing

By Loconte, Joseph | The Public Interest, Spring 2004 | Go to article overview
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Faith Healing

Loconte, Joseph, The Public Interest

PRESIDENT Bush's faith-based initiative seeks to elevate the civic role of modern-day Good Samaritans. If that seems doubtful, it's because partisan sniping has obscured an important fact about the intended partners in this initiative. They are not party operatives but social ministers, and are mostly uninterested in gaining political influence or advancing public religion. They invest exorbitant amounts of time and energy into reclaiming society's down and out. To those who study faith-based organizations, their motives are disarmingly transparent: to help desperate people escape truly hellish pits of poverty, addiction, and despair. Now that the Bush White House has pushed their efforts into the spotlight of national politics, they find themselves the subject of considerable scrutiny.

Two of the president's favorite groups, Prison Fellowship and Teen Challenge, are drawing special attention. The former is an outreach program that ministers to inmates and their families; the latter is an association of drug-rehabilitation centers. Prison Fellowship operates in 94 countries worldwide and is the largest prison ministry in the world. It offers Bible studies and seminars to roughly 219,000 inmates in the United States, or about 10 percent of the total prison population. The latter, Teen Challenge, is the nation's largest association of drug-treatment facilities. It supports 165 residential rehabilitation programs across the country, providing about 5,000 beds for recovering addicts at costs significantly below those of typical short-term programs.

Both are Christian evangelical organizations that mix practical help in job training and basic life skills with Bible instruction and worship. Religious conversion lies at the center of both programs. The frankly-expressed mission of Teen Challenge is "to evangelize people who have life-controlling problems and initiate the Christian discipleship training to the point where the individual can function as a Christian in society." It is much the same at Prison Fellowship, which seeks to create a prison environment that "fosters respect for God's law and the rights of others, and to encourage the spiritual and moral regeneration of prisoners."

President Bush's history with both organizations goes back to his days as governor of Texas, when he encouraged religious charities to become more involved in tackling the state's social problems. After a state agency threatened to impose credentialing requirements on Teen Challenge counselors--many of whom are ex-addicts with little professional training--Bush interceded. He set up a task force that recommended an alternative licensing agency for faith-based groups and then pushed the plan through the state legislature. When Prison Fellowship sought permission to manage part of a Texas prison--the first effort of its kind in the country--Bush backed them. Evangelical leader Chuck Colson, who founded Prison Fellowship in the 1970s, had promoted the idea of a "Christian prison" for years but could not find a sympathetic governor. "All of them turned us down," he says. "Bush didn't hesitate." The governor helped them get established in a prison outside Houston and attended the program's dedication ceremony.

In his first term as president, Bush has made comparable efforts to involve religious ministries in the provision of social welfare. He clearly intends to help these and other organizations play a major role in government's delivery of social services. The president has established faith-based offices in seven federal agencies, while issuing executive orders to end government discrimination against religious charities. In the 2004-05 budget recently submitted to Congress, the administration includes $300 million for a four-year program to support organizations helping criminal offenders reenter society, an obvious nod to Prison Fellowship. Another $200 million is earmarked for a drug-treatment initiative that would tap into religious groups, such as Teen Challenge, previously shut out of the system.

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