Belly-and-Soul Conservatives Should Go On Offense

Posted: May 01, 2001 12:00 AM
Conservatives are rightfully concerned about government grants corrupting religious organizations -- but we need to think about offense, not only defense. Right now, government vacuums up an enormous amount of money for poverty-fighting expenses of various kinds -- $5,600 for each taxpaying household in the United States -- and sends some of it to religious organizations. Catholic Charities now gets two-thirds of its money from government. Groups like Lutheran Social Services and Jewish Family Services are also big recipients. These groups presently tend to be government look-alikes, but they weren't always that way. Once, they helped people belly and soul, materially but also spiritually. They told people about who God is and how that knowledge makes a difference. Then, theological liberals within these groups began arguing that teaching about God intrudes on religious liberty, and that merely feeding people is sufficient. These belly-only advocates had a running debate with the belly-and-soul people, but the debate largely ended when government put its thumb on the scale: Officials offered grants on the condition that programs discard any remaining spiritual message and emphasize material distribution only. The belly-and-soul folks did not go away, though. For example, dissidents within Catholic Charities would like to change their procedures to make them more Christ-like: Whenever Jesus fed, He also taught. The advocates for change have been at a disadvantage, because they've been told that government officials would never allow religious teaching to accompany feeding. But they now have new hope. Maybe, just maybe, the federal government will stop preferring belly-only religion and discriminating against the alternative. John DiIulio, head of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, now says the belly-and-soul groups will be eligible for grants in all federal programs. They will not have to separate their faith from their teaching and counseling, so that some hours of the day are "religious" and some "nonreligious." Nor will the government discriminate against groups that stress proselytizing. In practice, this means that a Christian or Jewish class teaching about budgeting and saving by citing biblical verses as normative will receive treatment equal to that of a secular program. Or, a group that believes religious conversion is the key to beating an addiction will also be eligible, as long as it shows success in helping people escape drugs. Constitutionally, that's exactly the right approach. The First Amendment was designed to protect a diversity of religious groups, not to shield individuals from religion. People in the 1780s wanted an amendment to protect religion because the British just a few years before had "established" -- officially preferred -- Anglicanism. The words that begin the First Amendment, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion," mean that Congress shall not give preference to any particular religious view. Conservatives, instead of defending the status quo, should recognize that the "feed but don't evangelize" religious position is now given unconstitutional preference. We need to protect the religious groups currently outside the government orbit, but we should recognize how much they have been marginalized by the enormous federal social services presence. It's shortsighted merely to play defense to shield those groups, without emphasizing the need to go on offense to change the predominant service delivery vehicles. Belly-and-soul folks who tend toward separatism don't want to go on offense, and they have a point. If the goal of churches, synagogues and mosques is to protect their own people, maybe hunkering down will work -- at least for a time. Over a long period, though, those who are constantly on defense become worn out. And, if the goal is to reach out to all the people of a neighborhood, or a city, or a country with the hope of transformation, the belly-and-soul folks need to go on offense. I tend to be an optimist and a transformationalist. I recognize the hazards, and prefer danger-minimizing tax-credit systems to direct grants. The current discriminatory system, however, is not one that conservatives should conserve. It's time to make the belly-only people concerned about protecting their grants in the face of new competition.
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