The Ambiguous Embrace: Government and Faith-Based Schools and Social Agencies

Article excerpt

The Ambiguous Embrace: Government and Faith-Based Schools and Social Agencies. By Charles L. Glenn. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2000. xii + 315 pp. $35.00 (cloth).

In this important and provocative book about educational policy in the United States, Episcopal priest and Boston University professor Charles Glenn argues that faith-based institutions ought to be playing a far more active role in American public life than they are at present. In Glenn's estimation, it should be possible for government to make funds available to religious schools and social service agencies without either violating the principles of the First Amendment or stifling-by way of "a fatal embrace" (p. 9)-the theological beliefs and goals of the institutions themselves. Three basic assumptions inform the author's well-reasoned thesis. First, Glenn believes in the usefulness of providing support to "value-generating and value-- maintaining agencies" (p. 3) that mediate between individuals and the state. Second, he is concerned about both the weakening of institutions that once fostered a sense of moral obligation in the American citizenry and the emergence of what social theorist Richard John Neuhaus calls the "naked public square" (p. 7). And third, he favors the development of educational voucher programs, in which control of tax-generated funds would belong to the parents of the children being educated rather than to the so-called "monopoly" (p. 116) of "well-organized public employees" (p. 8) currently overseeing local school systems. Even if public funds were shifted to faith-based private schools, Glenn insists, this would not contravene constitutional guarantees of the separation of church and state because parents, not government officials, would choose how the money was spent-a situation not unlike the recognition and indirect support religious organizations already receive as charities under the federal income tax code.

In making his case for what would amount to a fundamental transformation of American public education, Glenn employs an impressive collection of data and ideas culled from diverse sources. He devotes considerable space, for instance, to analyzing the status of educational and social service institutions in several western European countries. As he notes, Germany and the Netherlands rely heavily upon religious organizations for delivery of many of the public services that constitute the welfare state in those nations. Glenn also examines the social service programs of religious organizations such as Teen Challenge (a Pentecostal street ministry among urban youth gangs), the Salvation Army, and Catholic Charities, all of which receive some limited government patronage. …


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