The recent forum at Harvard University's John F. KennedySchool of Government drew a capacity crowd that wanted to hear whatchurches and synagogues can do to stem poverty in the richest nation onEarth.
"There are no easy religious answers to hard political questions --let's get that straight, right off," the Rev. Jim Wallis, aself-described activist preacher, told an overflow audience of about 300students and faculty members at the April 5 event.
But Wallis, author of a new book, "Faith Works"(Random House), notedthat faith-based organizations are being talked about so much in theivied halls of academia and in think tanks, that they now have their ownacronym: FBOs.
"Some of us have been doing this work for a long time, and now itseems we've been discovered," said Wallis, an evangelical Christian whois leader of Sojourners, a nondenominational ministry in Washington that publishes a popular bimonthly magazine with that name.
What has been discovered is a wide array of grass-roots initiativesby religious congregations and interfaith alliances. These range fromhelping welfare mothers find gainful employment to turning inner-cityyouth away from gang violence.
Beyond strictly charitable works, Wallis has been rallying anunusually broad alliance of Christian leaders under the auspices of Callto Renewal to back a public agenda to reduce poverty in prosperousAmerica.
At a time when politicians are courting middle-class "soccer moms,"he related an anecdote about pulling up to the drive-through window atBurger King recently. The clerk was taking orders while apparentlyhelping her three children with homework.
"She is working hard, full time, and she's still poor," said Wallis,whose book chronicles what he sees as an emerging movement to connectspirituality with the search for solutions to poverty. "The role of FBOsis to put Burger King moms on the agenda."
Faith-based organizations were lauded almost as "the" answer topoverty problems during the presidential primaries.
Both Texas Gov. George W. Bush and Vice President Al Gore haveendorsed the idea of a partnership between government and religiousgroups that have a track record of success in helping the needy.
FBOs have also become one of the hottest topics at secularinstitutions such as the Kennedy School and the liberal-leaningBrookings Institution in Washington, represented at the forum here bysenior fellow E.J. Dionne, who is also a Washington Post columnist.
Wallis taught a class last semester in "Faith, Politics and Society" atthe graduate Kennedy School.
Religious congregations are among "the most powerful forces for bothsocial change and personal conversion that we have in our society," saidDionne. He said the faith-based movement has forced conservatives torethink their attitudes toward the poor and liberals to rethink theiroften-skeptical attitudes toward religion.
The big dissenter in the evening of plaudits was the man who wore aclerical collar. The Rev. Robert F. Drinan, a Jesuit priest who teacheslaw at Georgetown University in Washington and a former Democraticcongressman from Massachusetts, said he is suspicious of any politicaldrive to shift responsibilities from government to religious agencies.
"Deep down, I have the feeling that this is a cop-out by thegovernment," said Drinan. "Government should be doing this (rather than)pushing it onto the churches. I'm just uneasy about this. I say, let'sbe cautious."
The rejoinder from both Wallis and Dionne was that there are somethings faith groups can do better than government, although they mayneed the government's help in the form of tax dollars. Often-citedexamples include projects to discourage gang warfare and help welfaremothers with moral and material support. Many believe the initiatives have been successful, partly becauseof the spiritual component in these programs. But the steps toward apartnership between government and religion have also beencontroversial, primarily because of concerns about the separation ofchurch and state. Through a provision of welfare reform called"charitable choice," Congress gave public agencies greater latitude infunding faith-based initiatives. The range of possible reactions to such proposals was on displayduring the question-and-answer segment of the Harvard forum. Sarah Wood, a Harvard College junior who identified herself as aborn-again Christian, said churches should focus on turning hearts toJesus, which she said would lead to greater sympathy with the plight ofthe poor. One student who indicated he supported Bush for president said"charitable choice" should go further and actually let churchesproselytize social-welfare clients with government money. Anotherstudent, who described himself as a nonbeliever, said religious groupsshould somehow promote the concerns of the poor without "pushing areligious viewpoint." Other speakers at the event were former Sen. Alan Simpson, R-Wyo.,who now heads the Kennedy School's Institute of Politics and moderatedthe discussion, and the Rev. Jeffrey Brown, who has worked with gangmembers in Boston's African-American neighborhoods. Simpson drew chuckles and applause when he made a modest proposal atthe end of the 90-minute discussion: Candidates for public office"shouldn't quote from the Bible unless they have read it." On that sensitive subject of the infusion of religion intoelection-year rhetoric, Brown said, "I can't help but wonder what thefuss is all about. From the African-American experience, there hasalways been a melding of religion and politics."