Some American issues of church and state need explanation fromeditors elsewhere. *The Economist* (Feb. 11) explains "faith-basedsocial work" to an international audience, and illustrates why thisissue both inspires and divides citizens across most lines.Why is the issue complex and troubling or energizing to so manyreligious leaders and citizens at large? As *The Economist* puts it,the "35 years of failure" of Great Society welfare legislation haspeople scurrying around for alternatives. One possibility becamelegitimate thanks to Congress's authorization of "Charitable Choice"in 1996. This legislation allows, under certain circumstances, fortax funds to be directed to religious organizations so long as thereis strict accounting and no support at all for acts of worship,nurture, or evangelizing.So far, surprisingly, mainline church groups have been working thefaith-based approach more than conservative churches. And,unsurprisingly, African-American churches have also been active inthis area.One would expect those on the religious right, for example, to simplycheer this new governmental support for "charitable choice" -- andmany do. But many do not. Why would many Southern Baptists andother evangelicals be cautious or opposed? Many are still historicseparationists who favor a clear distance between church and state.More are anti-big government and fear that the governmental eye willfollow the governmental hand, leading to bureaucratic intervention,supervising, or even snooping on church ventures.
On the left there is also criticism. Jews, long nervous about anyerosion of the line between church and state, remain wary about evenindirect governmental support of faith-based ventures. And, moregenerally, the whole faith-based and charitable choice appeal looksto many liberals like an invention to get politicians and governmentoff the hook in terms of social responsibility, making it seem as ifwelfare needs can be met through this new instrument.But right and left mostly agree that it is difficult to draw a linebetween a religious group's core religious activities, which allagree should not be tax-supported, and its humanitarian andcharitable activities. *The Economist* illustrates this point byhighlighting African-American church endeavors that successfullyminister to prison inmates and those battling addictions. But thesechurches achieve results only be stressing religious experience suchas being "born again."The political campaigns of 2000 will have "faith-based" citizens andothers busy learning more, pondering, and making choices about"charitable choice."