Excerpted with permission from "What's God Got to Do With the American Experiment?," edited by E.J. Dionne Jr. and John J. DiIulio Jr. Excerpts from the book will be featured on Beliefnet throughout the convention season.

FBOs are "hot" these days. The emergence of the term "faith-based organizations" (and its acronym FBO) as a topic of discussion in the media, in academia, and on the campaign trail may signal one of the most significant new developments in American political and religious life. As an inner-city pastor friend recently said to me, "We've been discovered!" Faith-based organizations have been the mainstay of social service in this country for a long time-why the sudden new interest from the larger society?

Partly it's a result of the 1996 welfare reform legislation. As the federal government ended a direct role in many welfare programs, states and local communities came to the fore. And many of the most visible and effective programs in most communities are those that are faith based. Some have been there for a long time, many others were created in response to the new need.

Two of the most powerful forces in the country today are service and spirituality. The growing evidence of both is visible almost everywhere, and together they provide the most potent combination for changing our communities. They are growing streams of committed energy, which, as they begin to flow together, are creating a mighty river of action.

The recognition of this fact by the leading presidential candidates has raised the issue to a new level.

Vice President Al Gore, in May 1999, delivered a major policy speech in which he spoke of the "transformative power of faith-based approaches" in finding real solutions to the poverty and violence in local communities around the country. Then he went on to say that this role should be strategic, "not to be merely a shining anecdote in a pretty story told by a politician, but to have a seat at the national table when decisions get made."

Two months later, on July 22, 1999, Governor George W. Bush outlined his position by saying, "In every instance where my administration sees a responsibility to help people, we will look first to faith-based organizations, charities, and community groups that have shown their ability to save and change lives."

How the churches and FBOs respond to this new political interest will be a test of our faith and work. We must ensure that the political interest does go beyond pretty stories told by politicians using our language to a real working partnership. The interest of the politicians gives us an important opportunity to put the agenda of people in poverty on the political agenda. The well-being of the widow, fatherless, poor, and oppressed are subjects of constant discussion in the Bible. Making them a matter of serious political discussion in America today should be the mission of faith-based organizations.

Faith-based groups have an advantage over many other institutions when it comes to the kind of community organizing and development most needed today. Faith communities may be in the best position to lead in efforts for social renewal because of their inherent characteristics and commitments, enabling them to be community conveners in broad-based efforts involving many different kinds of organizations. There are three sets of "essential ingredients" that are at the heart of why it is so critical to tap the power of faith communities.

Message and Motivation
In a society where "market values" increasingly predominate, faith communities can offer a sense of meaning, purpose, and moral value that is increasingly missing in the society. When people feel reduced to mere consumers and life is reduced to shopping, faith communities can speak directly to the deep spiritual hunger that so many people experience. In the community of faith, persons are more than marketing data for advertisers or polling data for politicians; they are the children of God with immense and sacred value, created in the very image of God who gives a reason for being that far transcends "the bottom line."

Faith communities are also best situated to speak to the moral and spiritual impoverishment of the society that others seem to accept as inevitable. They can re-establish a sense of ethics and values when that is most necessary. Faith communities offer people the practical opportunities to love their neighbor, serve their community, contribute to a larger purpose, and sacrifice for something worth believing in. In the community of faith, values of compassion, community, and solidarity have a theological foundation and not merely a sentimental one.

Eugene Rivers, pastor of the Azuza Christian Community in Boston, says that "only the church has the moral authority and the vocabulary to introduce transcendent concepts of personal worth and the sacredness of life that will both inspire responsibility on a personal level and introduce purpose and definition to the role of civil government on a societal level." Thus, faith can be used to undergird, legitimize, and inspire social action.

Join the Discussion
comments powered by Disqus