Can the Churches Save the Cities?

A loud chorus now proclaims that America's social ills can be dealt with better by private religious organizations than by government. More than 400 ministries in America, up from 200 just two years ago, participate in the Christian Community Development Association's efforts to revive inner cities through Christian commitment and zeal. Business Week, the New Yorker, Christianity Today, America, and City Limits have devoted long articles to what is described as a veritable urban renaissance sweeping the country thanks to community improvement initiatives by churches, mosques, and synagogues. According to these stories, religious institutions lead effective programs providing social services and encouraging economic development in Chicago, Baltimore, Harlem, Brooklyn, Detroit, Cleveland, Los Angeles, Austin, and Atlanta.

Many people would like such "faith-based" social activism to receive not only more private money, but also more government support. A Supreme Court decision earlier this year, approving the use of publicly financed teachers to provide mandated remedial education in church-run schools, opens the way to more extensive public financing of religiously affiliated educational and social services.

But public funds are where many liberals draw the line. Conservatives have a quick explanation for that reluctance: Liberals hate God. That is a popular litany among conservative and communitarian pundits these days, despite the overwhelming support of liberals for two Southern Baptist presidents, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, and their virtual deification of another famous Baptist, Martin Luther King, Jr.

Liberals have been lazy in responding to this charge. Most of their talk about religion has been in the nature of warnings about dangers posed to the separation of church and state by the activities of the Christian Coalition. It's all too negative; American religion is a crucial national resource for addressing social problems, and liberals need to say so in accents that don't sound partisan.

The problem liberals face is how to define what constitutes appropriate action by the government to promote church-based social services, beyond of course the significant benefit of tax exemption. Using the taxpayers' money to support religious institutions does raise constitutional questions. And by conservatives' own logic, there are legitimate fears that government can corrupt the very agencies and activities it is trying to assist.

Moreover, the role of the national government grew in the first place partly because private charities faced severe limits in dealing with social distress. Urban violence and crime became problems in the nineteenth century, when government was not, as conservatives say with misplaced nostalgia, "on everyone's back." States and localities had wildly different records in promoting social justice, racism went without remedy, and private organizations, often churches, contributed to discrimination.

But many of the earlier conditions that prompted doubts about church-based services have no doubt changed. Faith-based activism could be an invaluable ally of public services, if only the two are able to work together within the framework of the Constitution. Fortunately, there is a reasonable middle ground in the current polarized debate.

Subscribe to The American Prospect


Liberal reform and religion have had a long and close association in American life, with churches and other religious organizations providing important social services in American cities among recent immigrants and the poor. In the early nineteenth century, the American Sunday School Society taught poor children to read and write and provided immigrants with instruction in English. Unpaid Protestant women worked among prostitutes. The Young Men's Christian Association movement made recreation accessible to the urban poor, while black churches and American Catholicism somehow found the means to spend more money on social services than any arm of government did.

Nearly all churches in the United States have contributed to America's Social Gospel tradition, arguably the most stunning achievement of America's voluntary society. The notion that the ethics of Jesus could transform American society produced a broad consensus among many church and nonchurch organizations in the late nineteenth century and achieved lasting political influence during the Progressive Era with the formation of the Federal Council of Churches in 1908. Liberals used to boast that the Social Gospel was their creation, due in part to leftist progressives like the devout Walter Rauschenbusch, the Baptist theologian and social activist, who in the pre-World War I period demanded that God's "will be done on earth as it is in heaven." The liberal boast was overstated, but there is still a strong current of social activism in America that has liberal religious roots.

Despite conservative claims, the support for today's faith-based activism comes from diverse institutional and ideological sources. Michigan State has twice hosted conferences for faith-based community developers. Behind some of the efforts are corporate patrons like the Walt Disney Company and Atlantic Richfield, which recently gave $800,000 and $500,000 respectively to a project of the First African Episcopal Church of Los Angeles. Well-known foundations, liberal and conservative in orientation, are also involved. The Lilly Endowment of Indianapolis is one of the major players, with a program supporting "Religious Institutions as Partners in Community Based Development." The Ford Foundation and the Pew Charitable Trust are involved. The boosters also include the conservative Heritage Foundation, which loudly declares religious programs to be the best way to fight crime in the inner city.

One cheerleader for this urban faith-based activism is Joe Klein, now at the New Yorker, who earlier this year wrote glowingly of the impact that Reverend Eugene F. Rivers's Asuza Christian Community has had on Dorchester, Massachusetts. Among other achievements, according to a former Boston police chief, Reverend Rivers's efforts are partly responsible for the precipitous decline in gun-related homicides among teenagers since the summer of 1995. Klein follows the Christian-inspired urban activism of Tillie Burgin of Arlington, Texas, as well, and throws in Chuck Colson's Prison Fellowships ministries for good measure. His true hero is the political scientist John DiIulio, whose Catholic faith prompted him to leave the Brookings Institution and teach only half-time at Princeton University so he would have more time to help inner-city churches in Philadelphia.

Klein unfortunately perpetuates the popular view of liberals as enemies of religion. "The faith-based movement is politically inconvenient for liberals," he contends. "Traditionally liberals tend to tap-dance when the faith-based issue is raised." But one liberal who is hardly tap-dancing is Henry Cisneros, the most visible political champion of faith-based liberal activism in urban America. In a 1996 essay, "Higher Ground: Faith Communities and Community Building," the former mayor of San Antonio and Secretary of Housing and Urban Development makes clear how important a priority his "religious organizations initiative" has been at HUD. In advocating a partnership between government and the churches in community building, he writes movingly of numerous religiously inspired inner-city successes, such as Chicago's Antioch Missionary Baptist Church, which has rehabilitated and developed 177 apartments and 120 townhouses with HUD assistance.



In thinking about the prospects of faith-based services in inner cities, a useful beginning point is the debate about the role of parochial schools. Many people favor educational vouchers and other measures that might increase the number of students attending church-run schools on the grounds that they do a better job than do public schools in educating socially disadvantaged children and rescuing them from a moral poverty that kills any desire to work.

Like other private schools, parochial schools can do something important that is forbidden to public schools. They can be selective about whom they admit, and they are under no obligation to retain children who don't stick to the rules. Parochial school teachers have gained at least part of their reputation for being good disciplinarians because those children who can't be disciplined, or whose parents can't be counted on to encourage discipline, are not accepted in the first place or are soon expelled.

If public schools had even close to the same leverage in choosing their clientele, their record would look a lot better. Conversely, if parochial schools had to accept and keep everyone, at least everyone that the prison system didn't take off their hands, their accomplishments would be less impressive. Parochial schools were set up to "rescue" for the faith a limited number of students, not to train everyone. That fact does not make the work of parochial schools any less commendable or socially important or worthy of public support. It only reminds us that their success is not entirely due to the crosses or copies of the Ten Commandments displayed on their classroom walls.

One theory that is popularly advanced on behalf of parochial schools and faith-based community development holds that teachers and social workers who see their labors as part of a divine calling perform better than people who merely work for a salary, especially when that salary is paid by government. There is, however, no systematic evidence in support of this position, only anecdotes marshaled with partisan intent. It is patently untrue that only a sense of religious mission can provide the commitment necessary to improve schools and contribute something important to the problem of "moral poverty."

Jane Addams was not a religious person, but her justly famous Hull House, located among Chicago's immigrant population, was for many years one of the most effective community organizations in America. University teachers, such as ourselves, are constantly reminded as we write letters of recommendation to law schools of how poorly this country mobilizes the social idealism of its youth. There is plenty of evidence of what it can accomplish. The Teach for America Program, a privately funded effort to attract college graduates to teaching, has shown that ways exist to improve public schools without spending vast amounts of money or encouraging an exodus from public institutions. San Francisco's Partners in School Innovation, a nonprofit organization, has worked with the sadly underfunded AmeriCorps to produce marked improvements in reading skills, student responsibility, and parental involvement. Any conservative genuinely interested in the marriage of private initiative, government sponsorship, and corporate donations has many models in America to choose from that do not rely on faith-based activism.

One alternative to Joe Klein's Dorchester is a secular success story in nearby Roxbury, where the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative is rejuvenating a once moribund inner-city area through an alliance of a local Hispanic social service agency (La Alianza Hispana), a Boston-based trust (the Riley Foundation), and, at the project's inception, Boston's then mayor, Ray Flynn. The directors of the initiative are not otherwordly priests, but worldly liberals. The idealism that supports social commitment comes in many forms.



What irks conservatives is their belief that government stands ready to work with the secular Roxbury initiative but pleads the First Amendment in declining to assist religious initiatives like the one in Dorchester. That belief has some truth behind it, enough to ponder whether we have grown so constitutionally impaired as a nation that we cannot figure out better ways for government to promote contributions by religious groups to the general welfare, even ways that allow for substantial financial assistance.

The question of providing government aid to parochial schools is one of the oldest ongoing quarrels in American politics. The especially strict line between church and state fixed by this controversy was strongly influenced by the militant anti-Catholicism of many Protestant leaders from the beginning of the republic through the 1950s. Since liberals have long been telling conservatives that nineteenth-century fears of big government are outdated, it's only fair that liberals pursue the question of whether the principle of government neutrality toward religion requires revision in an age when government and churches provide many more services than they once did.

The obvious difficulty limiting government assistance to religious social activism lies in the most important reason why church-based institutions achieve good results: They convert people. They can provide people with beliefs that don't solve their material problems but that give dignity and meaning to their lives. If liberal scholars can write admiringly of the role of Christianity as an ethic of community self-help among slaves in the antebellum South, they can understand, without picking needless quarrels with conservatives, why religious practice might add something important to the life of a welfare mother in New York City. That does not require accepting the claim made to support a faith-guided community center in Washington that "only heartfelt religious faith can produce the moral transformation and racial healing needed to rescue families and communities from despair."

Charles Colson, who is not a trivial example of the changes that conversion can effect in someone's life, boasts that his Prison Fellowship "invaded" a Texas prison to offer two dozen inmates "round the clock Christian education and training." These inmates, Colson claims, are much more likely to stay out of trouble after their release than other prisoners are. The self-selection of inmates may preordain statistical results favorable to Colson and his supporters, but the program—the indoctrination, if you like—probably does some good for the selected inmates. But even in the face of conclusive positive results, government faces limits in opening its institutions, with implicit tax support, to aggressive religious sectarian activity. Colson's group, in doing something more than providing counseling and services to prison inmates who are already religious, is on questionable constitutional ground.

We can understand the lament of many other religious leaders that they can't work effectively among the poor without "turning them to Christ." But if they do that, they are barred from all government support, direct or indirect.

Whatever the dilemma, that is the way it must be. In Detroit, the Joy for Jesus Church's job training program reported a falloff in the success of its placements when it dropped Bible instruction to get government money. But if the establishment clause of the First Amendment does anything, it bars government aid for religious proselytizing, no matter what general social benefits may be attributable to that proselytizing. That much about the minds of the Founders seems clear. They strongly believed in the social benefits of religion, insisting that a religious citizenry was essential to the success of the nation. Nonetheless, they left religious work to the churches and made a compelling argument that government involvement in sectarian affairs not only unwisely linked the fortunes of religion to the outcome of political squabbles but also necessarily resulted in religious favoritism that gave more religious legitimacy to some religious practices than to others. Free religious practice, American style, could not flourish in such an atmosphere.



Yet there are areas where government support of church-run services is generally acceptable and meets no constitutional barrier. Religious organizations do many things that are not, strictly speaking, sectarian. Catholic, Presbyterian, and Jewish hospitals heal people, and their medical services are underwritten by both private charity and public money. Religiously affiliated nursing homes, drug rehabilitation centers, and shelters for abused women can and should receive public assistance.

The Supreme Court in Bowen v. Kendrick (1988) decided by a bare majority led by Chief Justice William Rehnquist that federal grants to religious organizations for services related to pre-marital adolescent sexual activity did not violate the Constitution. One need not admire all the reasoning in the majority opinion, much less the Adolescent Family Life Act, to approve of the Court's effort to find a formula permitting Congress to pass legislation with a "valid secular purpose" that would not per se be unconstitutional because some of the funded private agencies had religious sponsors or stressed religious values. Upholding the stringent tests laid down in Lemon v. Kurtzman (1971), the Court spelled out criteria based on those tests that adequately protect the establishment clause:

  • Funded agencies cannot limit their services to people affiliated with any particular religious denomination.
  • Services provided under an act cannot be religious in character.
  • There can be no substantial risk that aid to a religious institution results in religious indoctrination.
  • Religious institutions must not be the sole or primary beneficiaries of legislation.
  • Any arguable effect of advancing religion must be "incidental and remote."

While holding that the Adolescent Family Life Act was not unconstitutional on its face, the Supreme Court remanded the case to the district court to determine whether the administrators of the act had erred in making specific grants to institutions that were "pervasively sectarian."

Curiously, the Court refused to bring parochial schools within the logic of its decision. It's difficult to see why. If a local school district wants to extend aid to private schools, including religious schools, to teach reading and math, then why cannot appropriate legislation be construed as having a valid secular purpose with only a remote and incidental effect of advancing religion? A teenager receiving pregnancy counseling in a church-run hospital or clinic vehemently opposed to abortion, however stripped the room might be of religious symbolism, is far more likely to be susceptible to covert religious "indoctrination" than a non-Catholic studying algebra in a parochial classroom.

Thus we do not disagree with the Court's recent decision in Agostini v. Felton (1997), approving a federal program that allows public school teachers into parochial schools to provide remedial education to disadvantaged children. In its decision, the Court modified its previous view that any public employee who entered the premises of a parochial school, with whatever secular purpose, ran a constitutionally unacceptable risk of becoming an agent of state-sponsored religious indoctrination. In place of this "contagion" theory, the Court seems to be moving toward a more sensible recognition that a secular purpose can survive in a religious setting. Americans have always recognized that fact; otherwise parochial schools would not be allowed at all. To be sure, a clear secular purpose is not by itself a sufficient constitutional test, especially if any program of assistance to parochial schools or church-affiliated social services suggests government endorsement of religious institutions over secular ones.



What is troubling are not the Court's recent decisions, but the complaints of some religious leaders, abetted by politicians in both parties, that religious agencies working in inner cities continue to suffer from inappropriate government discrimination. In applying for government money, for example, they are required to shed the signs of "pervasive sectarianism." They must also meet state-mandated fair employment practices and a host of other regulations that some claim may "water down" their religious identity. Such requirements do not, in fact, constitute discrimination, and as Catholic colleges have demonstrated in this country along with religious agencies around the world, compliance with secular guidelines in seeking money to provide secular services does not result in institutional self-destruction.

The complaint is related to the outcry of a broad coalition of church groups when the Court struck down the Religious Freedom Restoration Act in City of Boerne v. Flores (1997). The effect of this decision was to leave in place the ruling in Employment Division v. Smith (1990) that government need not prove a compelling state interest to enforce generally applicable laws that might create a burden, even a substantial one, on some religious practice. In our minds, Employment Division v. Smith—which denied a Native American church that used peyote in religious rituals exemption from Oregon's narcotic laws—is bad law in a number of ways, but not because it denies religious organizations or individuals presumptive exemption from legal obligations imposed on everyone else. A Christian opposed to homosexuality who chooses to become a landlord must be prepared to abide by laws barring discrimination on the basis of sexual preference. If a religious group seeks government funding of its social services, it must obey regulations prohibiting religious indoctrination. In neither case is any individual or agency being coerced to violate conscience, since an easy option exists to avoid government regulation.

Regulation, of course, may be a good reason for churches to stay away from government. In any case, the proper effort by courts and legislative bodies to find formulas that allow religious organizations to provide social services does not imply that private educational and charitable institutions should ever become primarily dependent upon government for their funds. When voluntary organizations cease to be creatures of private contributions, a vital set of mediating institutions between the individual and government will be lost.

The odd thing is that many prominent conservatives who worry about this possibility and suggest that government ruins everything it touches are ardent advocates of a partnership between government and churches. They are prepared for government to turn over much of its welfare and educational responsibilities to church-related services. There is, for example, the legislation offered by Senator Dan Coats that would allow citizens to "donate $500 of their tax liability" to private, antipoverty organizations (which, according to Coats, "would take about 8 percent of federal welfare spending and provide it directly to institutions . . . armed with spiritual vitality, tough love, and true compassion"). A proposed Charitable Choice welfare bill would encourage states to involve churches as providers of welfare services "while protecting the religious character of participating faith-based programs."

These measures are pushed with a partisan zeal that pits the wonder-working effects of faith-based charities against the supposedly hopeless incompetence of all government programs. Religion is overpromoted as a way to argue for a return to state's rights, small government, and lower taxes, as if the churches could take on tasks, like saving the cities, which are not, after all, their primary mission. It does none of us good if religious leaders, and their supporters in Congress, seek to advertise the value of what they do by denigrating the work of government agencies that must operate under difficult rules of democratic inclusion. We should not forget that America is already, statistically speaking, one of the most religious nations in the world. If faith alone could solve our problems, cities in America ought to be in much better condition than in many European countries where most people never go to church. Unfortunately, faith has not kept our streets clean or safe, housed our homeless, or healed our sick.

Religion ought to play an important role in improving life in the inner cities, and it will. We need a truce in our God Wars. Liberals, many of them deeply religious, understand the potentially liberating message of a religious ethic of caring and sharing. Surely the activism of the Sojourners belies Mary Ann Glendon's recent suggestion in the New York Times that liberals share an "ill disguised hostility to religion." What properly concerns us is respecting God and faith-based progressive reform while preserving the constitutional separation of church and state. We can do both a lot better than we have.

You may also like

You need to be logged in to comment.
(If there's one thing we know about comment trolls, it's that they're lazy)