Pubdate: Fri, 19 Jan 2001
Source: Vancouver Sun (CN BC)
Copyright: 2001 The Vancouver Sun
Contact:  200 Granville Street, Ste.#1, Vancouver BC V6C 3N3
Fax: (604) 605-2323
Author: Douglas Todd

Born-Again Charity


Evangelical Canadians are likely to lobby for the the U.S. trend to
tie government funds for social problems to a sin-based philosophy.

You can't take the stress any more. You're taking heavy drugs. You
fear you're hooked. In desperation, you go to a taxpayer-funded detox
centre. The first thing you see inside the door is a big sign:

"Drug addiction is not a disease. It's a sin."

This is not yet Vancouver, where such a bold merger of religious
belief with a government program would be illicit.

But it is contemporary Texas. It's a sign in a church-based drug
treatment centre that teaches being born-again in Jesus Christ is the
solution to every problem. It's part of a taxpayer-funded program
championed by Texas Governor George W. Bush, who Saturday takes the
oath of office as president of the United States.

Bush wants more government-financed, religion-run programs for the
addicted, the poor, the pregnant, the sick, the unemployed, the
elderly, the incarcerated and those seeking an education. He just set
up an Office of Faith-Based Programs.

Bush maintains the greatest hope for the suffering lies not in
"reform," but in religious "redemption." He promises: "In every
instance where my administration sees a responsibility to help people,
we will look first to faith-based organizations." Powerful U.S.
Senator Jesse Helms wants foreign aid also to be distributed by
religious groups.

Expect Bush's ideas about religion-based social programs to soon
travel north across the border to be debated in Canada, where
evangelical Canadian Alliance leader Stockwell Day has signalled
interest in the approach.

Bush's hope of redefining the separation between church and state is
based on his own evangelical theology and the guidance of his mentor,
Marvin Olasky, Texas author of Compassionate Conservatism.

Olasky, an ultra-orthodox Baptist, is convinced faith is the cure for
poverty. He says: "Guys who've been homeless for a long time or are
alcoholics or addicts, when they do come out of it, nine times out of
10 it's a religious transformation."

Civil liberties groups are crying foul. They say governments can't
sell salvation when they lend people a hand. And they're shocked Texas
law doesn't require staff at religion-based centres to undergo
criminal checks or be certified counsellors. A supervisor at one Texas
Christian-run state home was recently arrested for beating and tying
down teenagers in the name of Christian discipline.

The surprising thing, given the controversy, is that Al Gore and other
key Democrats have given tentative approval to the faith-based welfare
approach, which is often called "Charitable Choice." The Republican
Congress backed it in 1996.

Moderate advocates remind skeptics that charitable choice is not new:
Christian groups in North America have for decades run a small
proportion of tax-funded operations for the sick, addicted and needy.

The Salvation Army manages programs in the U.S. and Vancouver's
Downtown Eastside, and the Roman Catholic church runs some
taxpayer-funded hospitals in B.C. But they're all under strict
government regulations, and their religiosity is restrained.

The difference now is that Bush intends to dramatically expand the
reach of religious-run services, while giving them a virtual carte
blanche to do it in an explicitly religious way.

There may be benefits to faith-based services -- many struggling
people do benefit from spiritual conversion -- but there are also drawbacks.

Last year, I visited the welfare arm of Baltimore's giant Payne
Memorial Church, which belongs to the African Methodist-Episcopalian
denomination. Payne was one of the first of about 50 religious groups
outside Texas to take up the Congress offer, providing
government-financed assistance to its poor neighbourhood.

Although impressed by Payne's work, I was taken aback by the spiritual
pride of the church's key welfare official. She acted as if faith was
the answer not only for her -- but for her 2,000 clients. She didn't
understand the hard church-state questions posed to her.

She was just thrilled with her church's greater outreach and financial
health.  She dismissed suggestions atheists or Muslims might feel
uncomfortable in her Christian programs. She didn't think it a problem
she almost exclusively hires Christian staff.

A deeper defence of charitable choice came from an official of the
non-profit Center for Public Justice, who emphasized that
Congressional law states any religious group, not only Christians, can
run welfare programs.

Therefore, he argued, charitable choice doesn't contravene the
church-state divide, because it doesn't mean government is promoting
one religion over another. He added that federal law stipulates
alternatives to religion-operated programs are supposed to be
available to all clients.

However, a lawyer from The Jewish Council for Public Affairs, had
tough questions about charitable choice.

What's to stop vulnerable clients being subjected to proselytizing?
she asked.

Is it likely a Jewish welfare program, say, would be available in a
Christian-dominated state like Texas?

Will religious providers impose on clients their condemnation of
abortion, homosexuality or divorce?

Will vote-rich religious groups with polished political connections
get the richest government contracts?

Will tax welfare dollars go to religious groups that support racial
discrimination, such as the Church of the Aryan Nations?

These dilemmas haven't yet been resolved in the U.S. To get a handle
on them, The Polis Center, a non-partisan think-tank at Indiana
University, has published a booklet entitled, "Ten Good Questions
About Faith-based Partnerships."

Polis says some religious welfare programs are wonderfully in-tune
with clients; others are rife with problems. It wisely concludes there
is no justification yet for generalizing that spiritual groups provide
better services than secular agencies.

In other words, the jury is out on faith-based social work. Let the
Canadian debate begin. 
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MAP posted-by: Richard Lake