Magazine article The Christian Century

Faith-Based Questions

Magazine article The Christian Century

Faith-Based Questions

Article excerpt

AS THE White House's new Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives opened its doors the day after Presidents' Day, fanfare that greeted the concept is being replaced with unanswered questions--posed by the National Council of Churches and others.

President Bush unveiled his plans in one of his first presidential executive orders. He said the office was designed to give religious groups an equal chance at federal funding for programs that will help those in need. The office builds on the "charitable choice" provision of 1996 welfare reform legislation that was crafted by new Attorney General John Ashcroft when he was serving as a Republican senator from Missouri.

Numerous church-state separationists already have raised potential constitutional problems that such proposals prompt. But before the expected legal wrangling can begin, others are wondering about the basic matters of time, energy and equity for already-busy religious organizations.

The National Council of Churches looked at the faith-based initiative proposals by reviewing the research on and recent experiences from the welfare reform and charitable-choice programs. The National Council took up the issue in three steps:

* The ecumenical organization published on February 14 its 2001 Yearbook of American & Canadian Churches, which features a succinct review-essay of charitable-choice research by editor Eileen W. Lindner. NCC executive Robert Edgar, an ex-congressman, was mailing essay copies to all members of Congress.

In an interview, Lindner said that one phenomenon that usually goes unmentioned whenever officials talk about congregations getting federal money for social service work is this: "Congregations of the biggest size and resources tend overwhelmingly to be located in communities with fewer needs." A church in well-to-do Scarsdale, New York, has plenty of space and staff, but few inhabitants in that city need entry-level job training, she said, whereas "a storefront Pentecostal church in New York City has a lot of needy people in the neighborhood but not the material things such as classrooms, furnishings, bathrooms, parking and other resources."

* The NCC released on February 15 its canvass of related religious agencies in 34 states that rated programs begun under the 1996 welfare reform law--officially the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) and related programs. Opinions tilted slightly to the negative--43 percent said the programs worked "fairly well" and another 43 percent said "not very well. …

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