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.

FBOs are "hot" these days. The emergence of the term "faith-based organizations" (and its acronym FBO) as a topic of discussion in the media, in academia, and on the campaign trail may signal one of the most significant new developments in American political and religious life. As an inner-city pastor friend recently said to me, "We've been discovered!" Faith-based organizations have been the mainstay of social service in this country for a long time-why the sudden new interest from the larger society?

Partly it's a result of the 1996 welfare reform legislation. As the federal government ended a direct role in many welfare programs, states and local communities came to the fore. And many of the most visible and effective programs in most communities are those that are faith based. Some have been there for a long time, many others were created in response to the new need.

Two of the most powerful forces in the country today are service and spirituality. The growing evidence of both is visible almost everywhere, and together they provide the most potent combination for changing our communities. They are growing streams of committed energy, which, as they begin to flow together, are creating a mighty river of action.

The recognition of this fact by the leading presidential candidates has raised the issue to a new level.

Vice President Al Gore, in May 1999, delivered a major policy speech in which he spoke of the "transformative power of faith-based approaches" in finding real solutions to the poverty and violence in local communities around the country. Then he went on to say that this role should be strategic, "not to be merely a shining anecdote in a pretty story told by a politician, but to have a seat at the national table when decisions get made."

Two months later, on July 22, 1999, Governor George W. Bush outlined his position by saying, "In every instance where my administration sees a responsibility to help people, we will look first to faith-based organizations, charities, and community groups that have shown their ability to save and change lives."

How the churches and FBOs respond to this new political interest will be a test of our faith and work. We must ensure that the political interest does go beyond pretty stories told by politicians using our language to a real working partnership. The interest of the politicians gives us an important opportunity to put the agenda of people in poverty on the political agenda. The well-being of the widow, fatherless, poor, and oppressed are subjects of constant discussion in the Bible. Making them a matter of serious political discussion in America today should be the mission of faith-based organizations.

Faith-based groups have an advantage over many other institutions when it comes to the kind of community organizing and development most needed today. Faith communities may be in the best position to lead in efforts for social renewal because of their inherent characteristics and commitments, enabling them to be community conveners in broad-based efforts involving many different kinds of organizations. There are three sets of "essential ingredients" that are at the heart of why it is so critical to tap the power of faith communities.

Message and Motivation
In a society where "market values" increasingly predominate, faith communities can offer a sense of meaning, purpose, and moral value that is increasingly missing in the society. When people feel reduced to mere consumers and life is reduced to shopping, faith communities can speak directly to the deep spiritual hunger that so many people experience. In the community of faith, persons are more than marketing data for advertisers or polling data for politicians; they are the children of God with immense and sacred value, created in the very image of God who gives a reason for being that far transcends "the bottom line."

Faith communities are also best situated to speak to the moral and spiritual impoverishment of the society that others seem to accept as inevitable. They can re-establish a sense of ethics and values when that is most necessary. Faith communities offer people the practical opportunities to love their neighbor, serve their community, contribute to a larger purpose, and sacrifice for something worth believing in. In the community of faith, values of compassion, community, and solidarity have a theological foundation and not merely a sentimental one.

Eugene Rivers, pastor of the Azuza Christian Community in Boston, says that "only the church has the moral authority and the vocabulary to introduce transcendent concepts of personal worth and the sacredness of life that will both inspire responsibility on a personal level and introduce purpose and definition to the role of civil government on a societal level." Thus, faith can be used to undergird, legitimize, and inspire social action.

Counterculture and Prophetic Voice
Faith communities are intended to be distinct communities, with distinct ethics from the surrounding society. The apostle Paul writing to the Romans says, "Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds." Alternative visions arise from alternative communities. The symbols and rituals of the faith community can become powerful educators and mobilizers for committed and even risky action. For example, black churches in the South constituted a coherent subculture in the midst of a white-dominated society. As such they reminded their members both of who they really were and what they could really do. Churches became the practical place to organize car-pools to sustain a bus boycott and the spiritual place to prepare oneself for nonviolent confrontation with police clubs and dogs.

A countercultural community can have a prophetic public voice. Who will tell the truth or even try to find it when falsehoods prevail? Who will stand up for those who are being left out and behind or whose human rights are being violated? Who will question the easy and hedonistic assumptions of the popular culture? The faith community has the moral authority to make justice a priority.

Institution and Constituency
The most common institutions in local communities are the churches and the schools-and the churches are in much better shape. Churches are the most commonly found institution in every kind of neighborhood, across all geographic, racial, cultural, and class boundaries. In some poor communities, churches are virtually the last standing institution. With proximity to the problems, churches can work from the bottom up, redeeming kids one by one, claiming whole blocks and neighborhoods for transformation, calling for moral, civic, and political renewal in the broader community, city, and nation.

And, of course, the churches have a constituency. They actually have members who can be mobilized and brought together. The very nature of a universal membership in the faith community can be instrumental in helping to overcome the divisions between people, which are the greatest obstacle to organizing. And members of faith communities can be motivated to act on more than just their own self-interest but rather on the basis of the deeply held spiritual and moral values that undergird their faith. That faith can provide the kind of staying power so critically needed for long-term campaigns.

A new "spiritual politics" and "social leadership" from the faith community is forging new solutions in local communities across the country by developing new civic partnerships committed not only to alleviating the effects of poverty but to overcoming it. Exciting and effective new partnerships are being initiated between many sectors.

First, the churches are getting their own house in order by coming together themselves across the political and theological spectrum to work on the vital task of welfare reform and the deeper agenda of overcoming poverty. A national "Christian Roundtable on Poverty and Welfare Reform," convened by Call to Renewal, has been meeting for three years, and local "roundtables" are forming around the country. Conservative Evangelicals are working alongside Catholic, black, and mainline Protestant churches. Together they are reading and putting into practice what the Bible says about God's concern for the poor.

Churches and governments are developing new strategies to strengthen and empower nonprofits (including religious ones) to play a central role in delivering social services, without either weakening the First Amendment or weakening the religious component that makes faith-based organizations so effective. A public policy that recognizes and even funds the successful programs of both religious and secular nonprofits while respecting the separation of church and state is now critical.

The devolution of national social policy to the local level has led politicians and social policy analysts to search for new answers, which is leading them to faith-based organizations. Vice President Gore proposed: "Let us put the solutions that faith-based organizations are pioneering at the very heart of our strategy for building a better, more just nation," and promised that if elected president, "the voices of faith-based organizations will be integral to the policies in my administration." And Governor Bush noted that "Government cannot be replaced by charities-but it can welcome them as partners, not resent them as rivals."

If faith-based organizations are indeed "invited to the table," our role will not simply be to make government more efficient but to make America more just. It will not just be to "clean up the mess" created by bad social policy or to take the place of legitimate government responsibilities but to bring a morally prophetic voice for new policies.

In this partnership, we will raise the common moral values on which our society must build and insist on a strong standard of the common good to guide public policy. We will argue that the development of public policy must not be merely dictated by the clash of power and competing interests but also by fundamental questions of right and wrong. The development of public policy must be shaped by asking what our moral vision is, what kind of people we want to be, and what kind of country we want to have.

More and more political leaders are showing interest in FBOs. We must learn how to make the connections between spirituality and politics. There is enormous potential here-not just for a few exemplary programs but for a new vision of real social change. It's a strategy that goes beyond left and right, engages the grassroots, and, best of all, might really work.

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