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. Stephen Goldsmith is the former Republican mayor of Indianapolis and is now a policy adviser to George W. Bush's presidential campaign.
The scene on Indianapolis's east side seemed almost symbolic. On one side of the street was Shepherd Community Ministries, a center that served vulnerable and disadvantaged families. On the other side was a narrow alley where crack deals were made on a regular basis. It was as though the forces of good and evil were facing off across Washington Street.
Shepherd's director, Pastor Jay Height, was tired of worrying that the children he worked with every day might wind up on the wrong side of the street. So he came up with an idea: turn the crack alley into a park, a well-lit green area that drug dealers would shun. There was only one problem. To have the alley vacated, he would have to work with more than fifty separate contacts--agencies within city government, neighborhood organizations, utilities, assessors, and others.
Most people would have thrown up their hands and walked away. Instead, Pastor Height contacted the Front Porch Alliance (FPA), a city agency that works with value-shaping organizations, particularly faith-based organizations. Because the FPA employees understood how city procedures worked, they could help Pastor Height vacate the alley. "Granted, it is not always as successful as you would like, but in this case, we were able to make it work through teamwork," said Pastor Height, "And the neat thing to me is to be able to look at it and say, "Here is something beautiful."
Once the FPA cleared away government obstacles, many concerned organizations sprang forward to help make the neighborhood safer. Keep Indianapolis Beautiful, a private nonprofit group, designed the new park and supervised its construction. The two businesses that adjoined the old alley agreed to become the park's nominal owners. Volunteers from Youth for Christ put down soil and planted flowers.
This raises some important questions about why and how much government should get involved in troubled neighborhoods. Suppose you told Pastor Height's story to two political theorists, one traditionally conservative, the other traditionally liberal. The conservative would nod knowingly and explain that once cumbersome government regulations were out of the way, the neighborhood improved on its own. "Not at all," the liberal would retort. "The alley couldn't have been vacated if government hadn't become actively involved."
The director of the FPA, Isaac Randolph, puts it another way. "Everyone agrees that government has a core responsibility," he says. "But the core has a circumference, and the controversy is over the size of the circumference. Conservatives use a microscope to measure it; liberals use a yardstick." In Indianapolis, we have realized that neither approach is right. The traditional liberal belief in massive governmental intervention is misguided, but so is the idea that government should abandon neighborhoods altogether. There is a role for government to play in neighborhood revitalization. But what is it, if it is not the oversized federal programs that plague our cities today?
My view is that so long as government doesn't fund religion directly, it should be able to support social services to which faith-based organizations may add a religious component. That is, if a church runs a homeless shelter with beds paid for by government, it shouldn't be prevented from asking its guests to pray once a day. Government should always be sure to support secular shelters as well, so that no one is compelled to enter one with a religious component.
One way to steer clear of some of these issues is to work with nonprofit bodies set up by faith-based organizations. If a church sets up a homeless shelter next door, and if the shelter is an independent 501(c)(3), it is much easier to preserve separation between the church's religious function and the shelter's social service.
Programs like the FPA would be in good shape if the only opposition they faced was from people concerned with the separation of church and state. But we learned the hard way that there was a bigger obstacle: the churches didn't trust us. Faith-based organizations in Indianapolis had long grown accustomed to a negative relationship with government: they were ignored at best and mistreated at worst. When we approached pastors and proposed an alliance, they were highly skeptical. "What's in it for the government?" they kept wondering. "What political hoops do we have to jump through?"
In the end, we secured their support in three ways. First, we established an advisory board and spent time consulting with the organizations and getting their advice before publicly announcing the FPA. This showed them that we wouldn't spring any surprises on them and that we were serious about incorporating their suggestions into our plans. Second, we assisted them immediately and strongly, instead of just talking about it. And third, we invested heavily in the FPA. We tripled its work force from three people to nine--and that's unusual in an administration that has cut the payroll by a quarter. We wanted every pastor who worked with an FPA representative to know that he or she was working with someone who had the mayor's ear.
Once we won over the churches, we faced an even bigger problem--that government employees returned their distrust. Just because my administration formed the FPA didn't mean that every city employee supported the idea. Public employees lacked confidence in the capacity of faith-based organizations. Grant monitors in particular paid closer attention to procedural details--with which the organizations were understandably unfamiliar--than to programs' outcomes. This is still a problem, but the FPA has improved relations by translating between government bureaucracy and informal, good-hearted but not paper-work-minded faith organizations.
When I looked out of my window on the twenty-fifth floor of the City-County Building, I saw the whole city, but not any individual neighborhood very well. When a pastor looks out of his window, he sees the people who need help and the houses that need rehabilitation. Sometimes, if he is motivated enough, he even sees the crack alley that needs to be vacated and cleaned up.
But there is another reason that faith-based and value-shaping organizations are such a vital part of our communities. No matter how hard local governments work to keep taxes low, improve municipal services, repair the infrastructure, and so on, true urban strength can only be built on values. Without a population that cares about maintaining a civil society, a city will crumble. Values are best transmitted in two ways, through families and through local value-shaping organizations, particularly faith-based organizations. If government begins to partner with those organizations, they will not only provide services better than government can, they will teach our youth about citizenship, civility, charity, and a host of other values more effectively than ever before.
This is an idea whose time has come. More public servants are beginning to explore the world of possibilities that government-faith partnerships offer. If we succeed--if we encourage organizations like the FPA in cities all over the country, if we promote similar initiatives on a national scale--we will be harnessing the nation's greatest energy to deal with the nation's greatest problems.