2016-07-27
Some American issues of church and state need explanation from editors elsewhere. *The Economist* (Feb. 11) explains "faith-based social work" to an international audience, and illustrates why this issue both inspires and divides citizens across most lines. Why is the issue complex and troubling or energizing to so many religious leaders and citizens at large? As *The Economist* puts it, the "35 years of failure" of Great Society welfare legislation has people scurrying around for alternatives. One possibility became legitimate thanks to Congress's authorization of "Charitable Choice" in 1996. This legislation allows, under certain circumstances, for tax funds to be directed to religious organizations so long as there is strict accounting and no support at all for acts of worship, nurture, or evangelizing. So far, surprisingly, mainline church groups have been working the faith-based approach more than conservative churches. And, unsurprisingly, African-American churches have also been active in this area. One would expect those on the religious right, for example, to simply cheer this new governmental support for "charitable choice" -- and many do. But many do not. Why would many Southern Baptists and other evangelicals be cautious or opposed? Many are still historic separationists who favor a clear distance between church and state. More are anti-big government and fear that the governmental eye will follow 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 any erosion of the line between church and state, remain wary about even indirect governmental support of faith-based ventures. And, more generally, the whole faith-based and charitable choice appeal looks to many liberals like an invention to get politicians and government off the hook in terms of social responsibility, making it seem as if welfare needs can be met through this new instrument. But right and left mostly agree that it is difficult to draw a line between a religious group's core religious activities, which all agree should not be tax-supported, and its humanitarian and charitable activities. *The Economist* illustrates this point by highlighting African-American church endeavors that successfully minister to prison inmates and those battling addictions. But these churches achieve results only be stressing religious experience such as being "born again." The political campaigns of 2000 will have "faith-based" citizens and others busy learning more, pondering, and making choices about "charitable choice."
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