What a difference a presidential election makes. Two years ago
charitable choice, the section of the 1996 welfare reform law that encourages
"faith-based organizations" to participate in government-funded welfare
programs, was barely on the journalistic radar screen. In 1999 it became a campaign issue,
and has since come to dominate the welfare policy debate. But the nature and significance
of what President Clinton has called the "emerging consensus" on faith-based
social services has largely been missed. For behind the politics and the policy
discussion, charitable choice heralds something that hasnt been seen for
decadesthe rise of an activist religious center in American public life.
George W. Bush, the first governor to aggressively implement the charitable choice
concept, put the issue into play when he emerged as the presumptive GOP frontrunner early
in 1999. What really caught the medias attention, however, was Vice President Al
Gores embrace of the concept in a May 24 speech at an Atlanta Salvation Army drug
rehabilitation center. Rather than serving as a wedge issue for Republicans to use against
Democrats wedded to separation of church and state, charitable choice suddenly became the
occasion of bipartisan convergence on the campaign trail. The only thing politicians
seemed to want to fight about was who was more in favor of it.
This dynamic even filtered into the Senate race in New York, when New York City Mayor
Rudolph Giuliani alleged in a fall fund-raising letter that Hillary Rodham Clinton
exhibited anti-religious hostility by, among other things, attacking Gov. Bushs
charitable choice initiatives. When the letter surfaced in February, Mrs. Clinton fired
back, pledging her support for government funding of faith-based social services (provided
it is constitutional).
At the presidential level, journalists focused on the question of strategic positioning
for the general election. Public opinion polls certainly suggested that a purely electoral
logic might have had something to do with candidates rhetoric. In July, for example,
an NBC-Wall Street Journal poll found 76 percent of Americans in favor of "giving
federal funds to private groups, including religious organizations, to deal with social
In a typical assessment, Associated Press writer Sandra Sobieraj surmised that the Vice
Presidents endorsement of charitable choice "sneaks some ground out from under
Republicans who have long dominated the morals debate; and, less overtly, may serve to
disassociate him from Clintons personal scandals." Dick Polman of the Philadelphia
Inquirer saw the speech as a "Sister Souljah" move, with Gore putting light
between himself and his partys left wing by decrying a false choice of "hollow
secularism or right-wing religion."
A similar "positioning for moderates" analysis followed from Bushs July
22 "Duty of Hope" speech, in which the Texas governor vowed, "In every
instance where my administration sees a responsibility to help people, we will look first
to faith-based organizations, charities, and community groups." While noting that
Bushs speech contained detailed policy proposals, the Washington Posts
Terry M. Neal highlighted the political purposes of the speech: "At least as
significant as the proposals was the rhetoric he used to dispel the image some voters hold
of the Republican party as cold and mean-spirited." The APs Mike Smith saw Bush
attempting to articulate "conservative principles without hurting the poor or
alienating moderate voters."
Strict church-state separationists let out the predictable howls of protest. "To
call us hollow is insulting and divisive," Elliot Mincberg of People for
the American Way fumed to the Philadelphia Inquirer after the Vice Presidents
speech. "Im sure Gore is sincere about his faith, but why embrace the agenda of
the Christian Coalition?"
Barry Lynn of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, the perennial
"go-to" guy in such situations, told PBSs News Hour With Jim Lehrer,
"I think its in the nature of the church to be evangelical, and its very
difficultin fact, I think its impossibleto separate the function of
trying to save souls from the function of trying to provide these social services in that
same church setting. Thats why I think these things are clearly
unconstitutional." Charles Moore, a Methodist pastor with the Texas Faith Network,
was, well, less charitable, telling the AP, "Charitable choice opens the door more
than anything that I have seen in my lifetime to the church being able to take over the
state and turn this nation into a theocracy."
In line with these attitudes, a number of journalists treated charitable choice as part
of a right-wing legislative agenda that includes allowing the posting of the Ten
Commandments in public schools, school prayer, and creation of a national day of prayer
and fasting. Yet it turned out that some leading conservative voices were decidedly
unenthusiastic about what was supposed to be their favored approach to social welfare
The Detroit News, for example, editorialized on August 2 that Bush should stop
dishing out "warmed-over liberalism" and just cut taxes across-the-board, a
sentiment shared by sometime presidential candidate Steve Forbes. In "Subsidies May
Cost Churches Their Souls," a December 16 Wall Street Journal op-ed piece,
former Reagan administration official Michael Horowitz argued that the way to support
faith-based charities was to provide tax credits for those who voluntarily donated to
them. Marvin Olasky, albeit described in the September 12 New York Times Magazine as
"the godfather of compassionate conservatism," was on record in USA
Today saying that the requirements of charitable choice amounted to a "gag
rule" on "theologically tough" programs; he too preferred tax credits.
Although charitable choice originated with conservative Christian members of Congress
(principally Missouri Sen. John Ashcroft), it fits awkwardly with the rest of the agenda.
Bush himself stressed that charitable choice is not simple volunteerism. Rather, it is a
set of rules attached to block grant funds specifically designated for welfare programs.
If states open up welfare services to any private providers, religious charities must now
be allowed to applybut the money will be spent regardless.
Furthermore, as the conservative critics pointed out, charitable choice involves
religious institutions directly in doing work for the government. And it specifically
requires that all faith-based organizations (Buddhist and Baptist, Nation of Islam and
Wiccan) be allowed to apply. Indeed, some journalists picked up on an irony revealed in a
study of over 1,200 congregations conducted by sociologist Mark Chaves of the University
of Arizona: conservative congregations are less likely than liberal ones to be
interested in applying for charitable choice funds.
So where is the true spiritual home of charitable choice? Religiously, its principles
are most congruent with several groups that, until now, the liberal-conservative culture
war has overshadowed: white Roman Catholics, black Protestants, and white evangelical
moderates and progressives. While these groups possess generally conservative theological
and moral sensibilities, they share a social ethic that demands care for the poor, and not
just through private charity.
In a 1998 Newsweek package on the Rev. Eugene Rivers of Boston, a black
Pentecostal and prominent advocate of faith-based solutions to social problems, religion
editor Kenneth Woodward put his finger on the new synergies that are developing between
the social activism of white Catholics and black Protestants. (Cardinal Bernard Law called
Rivers agenda "a pro-poor, pro-family, pro-life platform that I can
enthusiastically support.") Summarizing the philosophical underpinnings of this new
ecumenism, Woodward described a conception of society "as an interdependent organism
rather than a social contract between isolated individuals" that recognizes that
"proper human development requires civic space for a range of institutions: family,
neighborhood, religious and other voluntary associations
. The moral community is one
that balances individual goods with those of civil society and the state. Charity, yes,
but also social justice."
Writing last August in the Weekly Standard, political scientist John
DiIulioperhaps the leading professorial advocate of faith-based
approachesexplained the "political theory" of compassionate conservatism
by invoking "subsidiarity," a central norm of Catholic teaching on how
government should relate to family and civil society. Protestant appreciation of such
traditional Catholic social teachings reflects the dramatic decline of anti-Catholicism in
America, wrote the Washington Posts E.J. Dionne in an October 3 column,
adding, "The turn of the millennium in America may well be remembered as a time when
the country renegotiated the relationship between religion and public life, faith and
Then there are the evangelicals. Journalists seeking the intellectual origins of
charitable choice would have done better to turn less to conservatives like Olasky and
more to moderates like Stanley Carlson-Thies of the Center for Public Justice. Rooted in
the Reformed (Calvinist) stream of moderate evangelicalism, the Center is a think tank and
advocacy group that has for decades been trying to persuade evangelicals to think about
politics in terms of justice for a pluralistic society. Carl Esbeck of the University of
Missouri Law School, who helped design charitable choice for Sen. Ashcroft, has written
for the Center, and is now at the Christian Legal Society, another evangelical group that
backs charitable choice.
Charitable choice also aligns with the basic goals of the small evangelical progressive
movementyes, Virginia, there is such a movement. Ronald Sider and Tony Campolo of
Evangelicals for Social Action and Jim Wallis of Sojourners and the Call to Renewal began
pricking the evangelical conscience about justice for the poor long before the rise of the
religious right. When Pennsylvanias Lancaster Intelligencer Journal caught up
with him January 22, Sider (a Mennonite theologian and activist whose books include Rich
Christians in an Age of Hunger) was in classic form, simultaneously reaching out to
the religious right and scolding it: "Being pro-family is not a conservative agenda.
Its a crucial component of any search for justice for the poor."
Progressive evangelicals have always insisted that responsibility for the poor is both
individual and corporate. It is why, despite deep suspicions about the 1996 welfare
reform, Wallis and his colleagues have been sponsoring roundtable conferences that bring
together groups ranging from the Family Research Council on the right to the National
Council of Churches on the left to discuss how to make charitable choice work.
Covering one such conference in 1997, Washington Post reporter Caryle Murphy
noted a new spirit in the air. "To support welfare reform and not be here is to be a
hypocrite," Richard Cizik of the National Association of Evangelicals said. "The
cold war among religious groups over the poor is over." While that seems overly
optimistic, Daniel Borensteins excellent article in the October 3 Contra Costa
Times was on the money in claiming that welfare reform "marks the emergence of
the religious middle in politics."
But if charitable choice is the rallying point of this new religious alignment, a host
of uncertainties, ambiguities, and problems remain. First and foremost, will faith-based
organizations make any actual difference for Americas poor? For religious groups,
participation in charitable choice is, after all, just an option, not a draft notice. Will
evangelical charities enlist, as Cizik challenges them to do? Will the mainline Protestant
denominations sign up, even though they may be opposed to other parts of welfare reform
and will have to tolerate the idea that pervasively and nonpervasively religious charities
are equally eligible?
Much also depends on the knowledge and attitudes of state and local officials. Legally,
charitable choice eligibility rules are supposed to over ride any conflicting state law
(including state constitutions). Only a handful of reporters have explored the actual or
potential conflicts arising from this.
It is also important to realize that charitable choice is part of a block grant system
in which states, not individuals, decide how and where funds will be disbursed.
Gov. Bush does want to expand charitable choice, but a prominent part of his plan to
increase the flow of resources to faith-based social services relies on tax deductions and
credits for the charitable giving of individual taxpayers. While tax incentives encourage
individuals to give, they also cede control over the distribution of resources in a way
that charitable choice contracting does not. Jonathan Koppell, scholar-in-residence at the
New America Foundation, cracked in a December 19 Los Angeles Times opinion column
that tax credits subject social policy to a popularity contest where "the charity
that secures Claudia Schiffer as spokesperson is more likely to succeed than the rival
endorsed by Abe Vigoda."
Vice President Gores gushing over faith-based social welfare programs raises
different questions. Declaring that their "religious character
is so often key
to their effectiveness," Gore nonetheless insisted that government would not be party
to promoting "a particular religious view." But there should be no confusion.
Charitable choice allows religious charities to offer religious instruction; they just
have to respect clients wishes to opt out. (And for clients who dont want to
go to a religious provider in the first place, states must provide an equivalent secular
Scripps Howard News Service columnist Terry Mattingly wondered how Gore expects to have
it both ways: "Vice President Al Gore has faith in the power of faith, as long as
faith-based groups that take government money are willing to forgo asking people to
embrace any particular faith. Hopefully, details of this generic, non-sectarian, yet
life-changing brand of faithfaith in faith itselfwill emerge later in the race
for the White House."
There is also the issue of accounting for the use of public funds. In services
contracted under charitable choice rules, no public funds can be "expended for
sectarian worship, instruction, or proselytization." If advocacy for a particular
religious view occurs as part of the program, it must not only have an opt-out provision,
but also be paid for by demonstrably private contributions. The rules against commingling
public and private funds here are analogous to those that govern lobbying by nonprofit
recipients of government grants. Although ideological forces line up differently, the
underlying problem of fungible government funds is similar.
But the most immediate question is whether charitable choice is constitutional.
Separationists are trolling for a test case, but it wont be an easy one to litigate.
As the Washington Post editorial page succinctly put it on December 6, when it
comes to government aid for religious nonprofits, "the reality is that this area of
the law is a muddle." A pre-welfare reform study by Stephen Monsma of Pepperdine
University confirmed that practice is equally muddled. Monsma found extensive public
funding of religious nonprofits. (Some programs have long had rules, or gentlemans
agreements, similar to charitable choice.) He also noted wide variation in how overtly
religious the programs were, and arbitrary enforcement of church-state boundaries.
For their part, the intellectual architects of charitable choice have articulated a
theory of "equal treatment" or "positive neutrality" that they feel
represents the correct understanding of the First Amendments ban on religious
establishments. This theory advances the view that government should treat all civil
society actors with the same benevolent impartialityno favoritism for one religious
tradition or theological style over another, and no favoritism for secularism over
religion. It is meant to replace the strict separationist doctrine that the Court adopted
in the 1970s, which (in theory if not in practice) allowed no government aid to flow to
religious groups (that is, unless they stripped themselves of any "pervasive"
The religious right has charged that secularism and liberal religious worldviews are
unfairly privileged in the world of no-aid separationism, and on this most charitable
choice advocates would agree. Esbeck himself argues in a chapter of the recent book, Welfare
Reform & Faith-Based Organizations, that strict separationism is not in the end
religiously neutral: "It is a classic case of the liberal seemingly oblivious to his
or her being illiberal."
Sara Fritzs June 18 article in the St. Petersburg Times and Robert
Greenbergers August 24 Wall Street Journal piece touched on the church-state
theory underlying charitable choice, but they were exceptions among journalists. If recent
rulings in education-related cases are any indication, neutrality theory (in some form) is
gaining favor at the Supreme Court.
Should charitable choice pass constitutional muster, it will set new ground rules for
American religious pluralism. Jeffrey Rosen, legal affairs editor of The New Republic,
wrote in the January 30 New York Times Magazine that the new era of "equal
treatment" means religion will be "just another aspect of identity politics in a
multicultural age." In Rosens words, it represents an "abandonment of the
liberal faith that, before entering the public square, all citizens should set aside the
aspects of their identities that are not susceptible to debate."
Others were less sanguine. In a December 1 commentary for the Scripps Howard News
Service, Bonnie Erbe, host of the PBS program, To the Contrary, argued, "Were
one of the few countries in the world where vastly differing faithsChristian,
Jewish, Islamic, Buddhist, etc.live together in peace. But if Uncle Sam starts
doling out large chunks of funds to religious charities
[s]ome charities will
proselytize with those funds
and worse, faiths will undoubtedly start competing
with each other and complaining about federal favoritism."
Advocates maintain that charitable choice clearly forbids publicly funded
proselytization, and insist that it is no more subject to rank patronage politics than any
existing government program. And while agreeing on the importance of peaceful coexistence
among religions, they see no danger from a little healthy competition. Pluralism, yes, but
Electoral politics notwithstanding, charitable choice is far from a "middle
ground" of motherhood-and-apple-pie consensus. The ground it occupies is more like a
battlefield no-mans land -- contested and filled with pitfalls. But if the new
religious center succeeds in occupying it, the culture wars will never be the same.