So when George W. Bush came along with his campaign proposal to encourage faith-based charity, evangelicals seemed thrilled. At last, they had a candidate who saw the world from their point of view.
Now the dream has come true. On Monday, President Bush unveiled his plan to establish a White House Office for Faith-Based Action and Community Initiatives, which would distribute billions of dollars to religious groups and charities over the next decade. He wants to let such groups help to provide after-school programs, prison ministries and drug treatment, among other services.
In some ways, the reaction was predictable--many conservatives leaders praised the idea, and moderate-to-liberal groups worried about the separation of church and state.
But conservative Christians are not all happy about the prospect of the government giving them money to run their programs.
"Are they going to try to change the mission of a faith-based program and dilute it so it's not obviously faith-based?" said Heather Cirmo, spokeswoman for the conservative Family Research Council. "President Bush may turn out to be a friend of faith-based organizations, but what kind of precedent does this set for future presidents who might not be as friendly?"
One of the volatile issues Congress will have to decide: Whom will faith-based groups be compelled to hire in order to comply with federal nondiscrimination laws? Some conservative Christians worry not only about being forced to employ non-Christians, but also homosexuals.
"A lot of the clergy and evangelical ministries are concerned that if they take public money, they'll have to abide by hiring practices that wouldn't allow them to discriminate against gays," says John Green of the University of Akron. "That really worries them."
The regulations could also include how the groups will be permitted to share their religious message.
Historically, Baptists and other evangelicals have been wary of government. Roger Williams, considered the founder of the Baptist movement in the United States, declared that government had no right to regulate churches--and set the stage for the doctrine of church-state separation. Conservative Christians' entry into national politics essentially began with the Jerry Falwell's Moral Majority in 1980 and accelerated with Pat Robertson's Christian Coalition in the late 1980s and early 1990s. As a result, much of this church-state wrangling is new territory for grass-roots conservative Christians, who retain their suspicion of government.
The Polis Center found something else intriguing: When the government money became available to churches under the 1996 welfare reform, a lot of evangelical churches didn't ask for it.
"Evangelicals said they wanted it," said Shipps. "It was something of great concern to the Christian right--but it was symbolic. When it comes down to actually getting the program that brings the government in and gives oversight...it also gives the government an in on what's going on in the churches.
"We do know more black churches are trying to get this money than white churches," said Shipps, who said the figures are still sketchy. "And mainline churches are asking for it more than evangelicals."
Other conservative religious people are also worried about government interference, though not as much as evangelicals.
"There are always pitfalls in every interaction with government," said Rabbi Avi Shafran, national spokesman for Agudath Israel, an ultra-Orthodox Jewish synagogue organization. "The question is how to mitigate those pitfalls when regulations are written. No doubt we are treading on new ground."
Michael Horowitz, a conservative Jewish analyst, fears the addictive quality of federal money. "Today a church or synagogue taking its first taxpayer grant may think, what's the harm, if there turns out to be government intrusion, we'll just refuse future grants," he said during the campaign. "They wake up in five years to discover that 30% of the minister's salary and 40% of the heating bill are federally funded, and they're afraid to walk away from that money, and meanwhile there's a government bureaucrat on the line saying, 'We'd like to discuss some of the comments you have been making during your services.'"
Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer said the president would seek to fund only the social service aspects of faith-based organizations and not the religious aspects. He said it would be up to federal departments to decide which groups were "appropriate," but left the door open for everyone from evangelicals to the Nation of Islam to apply.
Some conservative Christians are proposing solutions to potential problems, according to Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission.
First, there must be a secular alternative whether it's day care or soup kitchen or drug rehab--available to people who don't want to use a faith-based social service group. Second, the government should pay only for the nonreligious part of the ministry (such as the food at the soup kitchen but not the salary of the minister who preaches to the diners).
"All Baptists have some concerns," said Land. "There's a concern that government may try to come in and suppress the faith-based component of the program. That's going to have to be addressed. And I would encourage any faith-based group to turn down any federal assistance that causes them to have to compromise their hiring standards. And if the government is going to say they can't [hire whomever they want], there is going to be a lot of money that is not going to be used."
For some groups, these questions are old hat. Mainline Protestants, Catholics, and Jews have been taking government money for decades. They have always skirted the church-state concerns because they have set up separate nonprofit organizations, such as Catholic Charities or Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service or Jewish Community Federations, to dole out the services and deal with the government.
A few people were offering advice yesterday to the nervous newbies.
"We have a lot of experience in serving the community and a lot of experience in relations between government and the church," said Monsignor Francis Maniscalco, spokesman for the U.S. Catholic Conference. It's doable, he says.
But some religious folks were still wary. "If it sounds too good to be true," said Cirmo of the Family Research Council, "it probably is."