CAMBRIDGE, Mass. (RNS)--In many ways, it was an unlikely setting for a call to spiritual arms. But the scene at one of the nation's elite secular institutions of policy studies was reflective of a booming interest in so-called faith-based organizations.

The recent forum at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government drew a capacity crowd that wanted to hear what churches and synagogues can do to stem poverty in the richest nation on Earth.

"There are no easy religious answers to hard political questions--let's get that straight, right off," the Rev. Jim Wallis, a self-described activist preacher, told an overflow audience of about 300 students and faculty members at the April 5 event.

But Wallis, author of a new book, "Faith Works" (Random House), noted that faith-based organizations are being talked about so much in the ivied halls of academia and in think tanks, they now have their own acronym: FBOs.

"Some of us have been doing this work for a long time, and now it seems we've been discovered," said Wallis, an evangelical Christian who is leader of Sojourners, a Washington-based nondenominational ministry that publishes a popular bimonthly magazine with that name.

What has been discovered is a wide array of grass-roots initiatives by religious congregations and interfaith alliances. These range from helping welfare mothers find gainful employment to turning inner-city youth away from gang violence.

Beyond strictly charitable works, Wallis has been rallying an unusually broad alliance of Christian leaders under the auspices of Call to Renewal to back a public agenda to reduce poverty in prosperous America.

At a time when politicians are courting middle-class "soccer moms," he related an anecdote about pulling up to the drive-through window at Burger King recently. The clerk was taking orders while apparently helping 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 connect spirituality with the search for solutions to poverty. "The role of FBOs is to put Burger King moms on the agenda."

Faith-based organizations were lauded almost as "the" answer to poverty problems during the presidential primaries.

Both Texas Gov. George W. Bush and Vice President Al Gore have endorsed the idea of a partnership between government and religious groups that have a track record of success in helping the needy.

FBOs have also become one of the hottest topics at secular institutions such as the Kennedy School and the liberal-leaning Brookings Institution in Washington, represented at the forum here by senior fellow E.J. Dionne, who is also a Washington Post columnist.

Wallis taught a class last semester in "Faith, Politics and Society" at the graduate Kennedy School.

Religious congregations are among "the most powerful forces for both social change and personal conversion that we have in our society," said Dionne. He said the faith-based movement has forced conservatives to rethink their attitudes toward the poor and liberals to rethink their often-skeptical attitudes toward religion.

The big dissenter in the evening of plaudits was a man who wore a clerical collar. The Rev. Robert F. Drinan, a Jesuit priest who teaches law at Georgetown University in Washington and is a former Democratic congressman from Massachusetts, said he is suspicious of any political drive to shift responsibilities from government to religious agencies.

"Deep down, I have the feeling that this is a cop-out by the government," said Drinan. "Government should be doing this (rather than) pushing it onto the churches. I'm just uneasy about this. I say, let's be cautious."

The rejoinder from both Wallis and Dionne was that there are some things faith groups can do better than government, although they may need the government's help in the form of tax dollars. Often-cited examples include projects to discourage gang warfare and help welfare mothers with moral and material support.

Many believe the initiatives have been successful, partly because of the spiritual component in these programs. But the steps toward a partnership between government and religion have also been controversial, primarily because of concerns about the separation of church and state. Through a provision of welfare reform called "charitable choice," Congress gave public agencies greater latitude in funding faith-based initiatives.

The range of possible reactions to such proposals was on display during the question-and-answer segment of the Harvard forum.

Sarah Wood, a Harvard College junior who identified herself as a born-again Christian, said churches should focus on turning hearts to Jesus, which she said would lead to greater sympathy with the plight of the poor.

One student who indicated he supported Bush for president said "charitable choice" should go further and actually let churches proselytize social-welfare clients with government money. Another student, who described himself as a nonbeliever, said religious groups should somehow promote the concerns of the poor without "pushing a religious viewpoint."

Other speakers at the event were former Sen. Alan Simpson, R-Wyo., who now heads the Kennedy School's Institute of Politics and moderated the discussion, and the Rev. Jeffrey Brown, who has worked with gang members in Boston's African-American neighborhoods.

Simpson drew chuckles and applause when he made a modest proposal at the 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 into election-year rhetoric, Brown said, "I can't help but wonder what the fuss is all about. From the African-American experience, there has always been a melding of religion and politics."

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