Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Filling In the Blanks

James Skillen


September 2, 1996

Love it, hate it, or hope it turns out better than you fear it will, the truth is that the full significance of the welfare-reform bill President Clinton signed in mid-August cannot yet be known. To be sure, the new law reverses the New Deal/Great Society approach to fighting poverty, ending the federal guarantee of help and cutting back on federal social spending. But what it substitutes is not so much another program as a spare framework. It returns welfare design to the states and encourages them to collaborate with community and religious groups. But it leaves up to them how to move beneficiaries into work, discourage teen pregnancy, and foster personal responsibility. Whether the law will yield progress or regress depends mainly on what states, charities, and poor families make of its opportunities.

Nowhere is this more true than with the proposed new collaboration of government with religious groups. The new law encourages states to team-up with churches and faith-based agencies, and it promises to those organizations a range of protections to enable them to retain their religious character despite receiving public funds. But the law insists that no government money flowing directly to them may be used for "sectarian worship, instruction, or proselytization." As Stephen Burger, head of the International Union of Gospel Missions, has said, "This is where it gets muddy."

Will it be illegal to teach boys and men a biblical model of maleness and fatherhood? To counsel teen moms about a godly sense of self, sexuality, and marriage? To require drug addicts to turn not to some vague "higher power" but to Christ? To tell job-prep trainees to labor faithfully not only to avoid termination but to honor work, the employer, and customers? Government must not aim to fund worship or Bible classes. But if it requires the complete secularization of assistance, why should Christian groups get involved?

Here's the interpretive key to the "charitable choice" provision: its whole purpose is to foster collaboration "without impairing the religious character" of faith-based social ministries. The idea is not to get religious charities to do government-style welfare, but to get government to support their faith-directed anti-poverty work. The law protects beneficiaries not by forcing religious groups to become secular but by ensuring that beneficiaries can chose either a nonreligious or a religious provider.

The precise specification of what is safeguarded and prohibited will be made in each state's regulations. Some issues may be decided in the courts. But religious groups should take confidence from the intent of charitable choice. Equally, they should take heart from the fact that government officials are turning to them exactly because of the exhaustion of the secularized anti-poverty model. This is no time for Christian ministries to hide their light under a bushel.

Ministries will have to be above reproach if they contemplate partnering with government. They will need to encourage the transformation of lives with no hint of coercion, and promote behavioral change, not only spiritual commitment. The liberty promised by the law must be used for the greater good of the poor, not for the aggrandizement of social ministries.

Christian ministries want to ensure that public service will not cripple their religious mission. If so, they should not just sit while others write the regulations and establish the policies. Now is the time to plunge in to make sure that the blanks get filled with the right content. And it is not too early to consider how the law's framework itself should be improved.

—Stanley Carlson-Thies, Senior Fellow
   Center for Public Justice

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”