Is it really better for government and religion to stay out of each other’s affairs?

This is a question that Joshua DuBois, the new director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships established by President Barack Obama, most likely will have to answer time and time again. May his wisdom surpass his years; and from what I’ve read of him, it does.

My answer to this question will, of course, be far simpler than his.

I remember when President George W. Bush announced his Office of Faith Based Initiatives in 2001. The African-American community in which I worked was jubilant. My first thoughts, however, went to the possible constitutional issues at stake. I was worried that churches might lose the ability to carry on their mission according to their religious convictions. I was concerned that different religions might be able to advance their agendas with taxpayer money, making unwitting citizens underwriters of their faith practices. I was worried about civil liberties, as well as the freedom of my religious conscience, being the Baptist that I am.

My mentor explained how more successful faith-based social agencies in that region of North Carolina were established white organizations. Though they employed black Christians and served impoverished communities with justice and compassion, they indirectly perpetuated the problem of poverty in the black community. How? I asked.

He explained that social charity itself is an industry driven by the accumulation of capital in the form of donations and grants. White-run agencies attract the most funding. They employ skilled grant writers. They operate in donation networks that were more cash-affluent and cash-liquid. They are more likely to have political relationships developed in other social settings that benefit their work.

In addition, many of these well-connected agencies were further empowered by the new “charitable-choice” legislation signed by President Bill Clinton. They bid for social-services contracts and won them due to many of the factors he had just mentioned. The result was that a culture of reward or hardship emerged, affecting many agencies.

In turn, the federal faith-based partnership program has given African-American religious groups hope that the financial playing field might be leveled a bit. It has opened access to funding to many groups excluded for reasons similar to those I just explained.

In North Carolina, several black churches started community development programs with money that just one year earlier was not available.

The success of these African-American groups extended beyond the direct recipients of their aid, however. They themselves energized an economically depressed community by bringing ownership to social redevelopment through hiring and training, networking and problem solving.

Public funding stepped in when private funding inadvertently discriminated against certain groups.

Imagine that. The White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships might actually mediate a certain kind of religious establishment and remedy certain forms of religious discrimination. In my opinion, and for this reason alone, more success to you, Mr. DuBois!

Andrew Watts is assistant professor of religion at Belmont University. This column appeared previously in The Tennessean.

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