July 15, 2002
Faith in the Faith-based
-- Murray Friedman
In his column "Concerning Faith-based Initiatives," (Sightings, June 24, 2002) Martin E. Marty raises questions about a piece written by John J. DiIulio, Jr., former head of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. In "The New Civil Rights Struggle," (Wall Street Journal, June 20, 2002) DiIulio described the relatively new urban strategy of charitable choice or faith-based activism as the next stage of the civil rights revolution. Marty lays out the arguments against this initiative (as DiIulio describes them) pointing out especially that it may violate the separation of church and state as embodied in the First Amendment. I have great respect for Dr. Marty, but I must differ with him.
There is another, more positive way of looking at the new Bush-backed initiative; a new concept of public/private partnerships that can add to the arsenal of weapons in dealing with the current urban crisis is clearly emerging. This does not call for junking the separation principle, but rather for defining it in terms of modern needs. The courts seem to be moving to this new definition. In recent years, the Supreme Court has increasingly incorporated the views of a number of constitutional theorists including Philip Kurland, Michael McConnell and Carl Esbeck, who have called for equal treatment of religion. Their argument is summed up in what has come to be called the "Kurland rule." If a government policy furthers a legitimate secular purpose it is a matter of indifference whether or not that policy employs religious institutions.
I am no lawyer -- just a less exalted historian -- but case after case fits this description. In the most recent one, Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, the court, in a 5-4 decision, held that Cleveland's educational vouchers providing government funding for parents who send their children to private and parochial schools are constitutionally permissible. Chief Justice William Rehnquist, writing for the majority, began his opinion with a discussion of the educational crisis in the Cleveland school district. It is undisputed, Rehnquist said, that the voucher program was "enacted for the valid secular purpose of providing educational assistance to poor children in a demonstrably failing public school system." The Court distinguished between government programs that provide aid directly to religiousschools and programs of "true private choice, in which government aid reaches religious schools only as a result of the genuine and independent choices of private individuals."
Marty is right about the dangers of proselytizing. But proponents of charitable choice have actively sought to head off that danger. The original legislation passed by Congress in 1996 and signed into law by President Clinton, explicitly forbids proselytizing. Users of the service can opt out and public bodies must provide equal services under secular auspices. Additionally, the dangers of proselytizing are somewhat abstract for those who are in deep trouble. A far worse danger is the pain and suffering of so many of our citizens who could benefit from faith-based efforts. We do, however, need to be vigilant as we move toward a new definition of church-state separation.
It is obvious to most people in recent years that religious institutions and those believing in the force of religion in turning people's lives around can play a critical role in raising up the poor and helpless. We are living in a post civil rights era. The battle has shifted from the marches and protests of the 60s to what economist Glen Loury has called "the struggle within." It is across this new and challenging landscape that DiIulio seeks to guide us.
Murray Friedman retired recently as Middle Atlantic States director of the American Jewish Committee. He heads the Feinstein Center for American Jewish History at Temple University. He served as vice chairman of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission from l986-l989.
Editor's Note: "Harry Versus the Hobbit" (Sightings, June 27, 2002) contained an incorrect characterization of Christianity Today's position on the Harry Potter series. In that column Paul Flesher wrote, "The more traditional Christianity Today argued that the story [Potter] led people toward sin." Christianity Today has published many articles on Harry Potter, most of which have been very favorable. The piece cited by Flesher was an opinion piece, not an expression of the magazine's reaction to the series. He and I regret the mistake and offer our apologies.