Not By Faith Alone

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Just as Presidents Ronald Reagan and Bush the elder promoted volunteerism, President George W. Bush preaches the gospel of redemption through the good works of faith-centered organizations. On the campaign trail, Bush's daily mantra was to "rally the armies of compassion." In July 1999, he declared before Indianapolis's Front Porch Alliance, "In every instance where my administration sees a responsibility to help people, we will look first to faith-based organizations, charities and community groups."

Is this the dawning of some White House-led awakening in social services policy in general, and youth services in particular? Maybe.

The establishment of the White House Office of Faith-Based Action guarantees high visibility for the concept. So does the arrival of former Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson as secretary of Health and Human Services and former Sen. John Ashcroft (R-Mo.) as attorney general.

In the Senate, Ashcroft successfully inserted "charitable choice" into the 1996 welfare reform legislation. The term is used to describe public policies that encourage partnerships between government and church (or para-church) entities to address social problems with tax revenues.

Bush has promised to mandate charitable choice "in every federal, state and local social program." In Texas, Gov. Bush appointed a task force whose recommendations led the state to exempt nonmedical alcohol and drug treatment programs from licensing and regulation, to permit church-run child care facilities to avoid state licensing, and to encourage faith-based ventures within state youth corrections institutions. In 1999 Bush signed the Texas Religious Restoration Act under which only "a compelling state interest" can be invoked to bar faith groups from equal access to government funds. When the conservative Center for Public Justice issued a report card on each state's use of charitable choice to promote welfare-to-work, Texas and Wisconsin were among the few to earn an "A."

But behind all the political trendiness of faith-based services is little that is authentically new. For two centuries before the founding of the republic, churches in what is now the United States had been providing education and social services to the young. In the 20th century, church/state separation concerns led to the creation of "religiously affiliated" nonprofits such as Lutheran Social Services and Catholic Charities. Thousands of sectarian child welfare programs took root and have since developed fee-for-service contractual relationships with government. Supreme Court decisions, including a 1988 case involving the chastity-promoting Adolescent Family Life Act, have made it possible for religious groups to directly receive public funding within constitutional bounds.

Still, major hurdles remain, such as politicized evaluations and employment discrimination by some faith-based groups.

Ashcroft has said, "Charitable choice unleashes healing agents, faith, compassion for the needy, the desire to serve others to heal the culture's wounds." Similar hyperbole and claims were made on behalf of volunteerism during the Reagan and elder Bush administrations. But the legacy of those "Points of Light" years are hard to find. From 1995 to 1998, the number of volunteer hours donated by Americans dropped by 400 million. Virtually every mentoring program for teens has a long waiting list. Much of the problem isn't a lack of caring, but of time. One study says middle class parents work a combined 335 hours more per year than in 1979.

When not working, much of today's phantom reservoir of volunteers are stuck in traffic - another problem for churches. A typical volunteer needs 45 minutes to get to an inner city neighborhood. And with the notable exception of parish-bound Catholics and car-less congregations in storefront churches, that's just what most members of urban churches are doing on Sunday morning - commuting from the suburbs to the churches of their forebears.

Yet the very soul of faith-based youth services is built on intimate, sustained and wise relationships between a youth and a caring adult.

The public face of faith-based youth services is that of the Rev. Eugene Rivers, pastor of Boston's Azusa Christian Community and its Ella J. Baker House, and founder of the Ten-Point Coalition. But Rivers' success is not based just on faith. The Ford Foundation alone has provided Rivers' affiliated groups with over $1.2 million. This fiscal year, these outfits will receive $600,000 in earmarks from Congress.

Candidate Bush proposed spending up to $10 billion in federal funds "to encourage an outpouring of giving." If one component of that outpouring is to join his secretary of state in endorsing the faith-based friendly Younger Americans Act, Bush's policies have a good chance of making a real difference for all kids.

Critics have referred to Bush the elder's term as "the points of blight" administration. Will this administration earn the sobriquet of the "fade-based" administration? That's up to the White House.