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
, 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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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