TOPICS > Politics

Church and State

January 29, 2001 at 12:00 AM EDT


GWEN IFILL: So should there be an increased federal role in faith-based programs? Joining us to debate the question are Stephen Goldsmith, who was tapped by President Bush today to head the Corporation for National Service. He will work with a new White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. A Republican, he’s also the former mayor of Indianapolis. The Reverend Floyd Flake is the senior pastor of the Allen African Methodist Episcopal Church in New York, a $24 million corporation which runs schools, housing developments and other social services. A Democrat, he’s also a former congressman from New York. The Reverend Forrest Church is a senior minister of All Souls Unitarian Church in Manhattan, which runs 20 social service programs in East Harlem. And Wendy Kaminer is a public policy fellow at Radcliffe College and a contributing correspondent of The American Prospect magazine. Her newest book is Sleeping with Extra-Terrestrials: The Rise of Irrationalism and Perils of Piety. Mr. Goldsmith, could you tell us in as much detail as you can, exactly what the president is proposing that’s different from what we’ve seen before?

STEPHEN GOLDSMITH: Well, I think we have to look at both sides of this as your introduction suggested. First he’s setting up ways to encourage, enhance, charitable giving. It’s obviously better if individuals contribute directly to their synagogue or their mosque or their church, allowing non-itemizers to deduct is one way. Secondly he is proposing that across the array of social programs that federal government offers that faith-based groups should be able to compete for those grants, that we ought to remove the obstacles that are in their way and even the playing field. And third, as he said in the piece a little bit earlier, he believes that there is a very valuable role for faith-based providers but that any citizen who needs help should have their choice between a secular provider and a faith-based provider. So he’ll be, with the executive orders today and with proposed legislation, expanding the ways that faith-based and community-based organizations can participate and compete for federal dollars.

GWEN IFILL: I know you had some experience in Indiana trying to get these kinds of programs up and running. How is what we have seen over the years — we drive past housing projects that have churches’ names on them, for instance — how is that different from what the president is talking about now?

STEPHEN GOLDSMITH: Well, I think it’s somewhat the same and somewhat different. As the president has gone across the country in the campaign and he’s seen many of these — some are housing, some are shelters, some are havens from domestic violence. There’s all sorts of drug treatment, great examples, over the last decade. What the president is saying that is we need to help, aid and flourish these. So the difference is today his leadership, a White House Office of Faith and Community Initiatives, extension of charitable choice language across the government rather than just in the silos exist. I think probably most importantly the difference is he’s saying that he’s going to root out these bureaucratic obstacles, allow faith-based organizations, not tilt in their favor, but allow them to compete evenly and fairly for the right to help people who prosperity has left behind.

GWEN IFILL: Wendy Kaminer, what is not to like about a proposal like this?

WENDY KAMINER: First of all it’s very misleading to talk about faith-based social services. What we’re really talking about are federally funded sectarian social services. Faith does not exist in the abstract. It takes the form of some very different sectarian beliefs and institutions. We have… we have had a wall between church and state in order to prevent the government from discriminating against unpopular religions and we have not allowed sectarian institutions to receive federal funding for social services in order to protect the religious freedom of people who receive those social services. You know, in your introduction you gave us the example of a Methodist church outside of Philadelphia. But imagine if we weren’t just talking about giving federal dollars to the nice Methodist church down the block but we were giving federal dollars to the Church of Scientology, to David Koresch, to even the Nation of Islam, which is a very controversial religion. When the government gets involved in funding sectarian activities, it inevitably comes under pressure to favor popular religions and to discriminate against very unpopular religions or religions that will be labeled sects – that will be labeled cults. What I imagine will happen down the road is that we’ll start hearing government bureaucrats who are administering these programs talk about the difference between legitimate and illegitimate religions. That’s very dangerous.

GWEN IFILL: Reverend Flake – I’m sorry – I just want to get to Rev. Flake. You were at the signing ceremony today. Do you have any residual concerns about the kinds of questions that Wendy Kaminer just raised?

REV. FLOYD FLAKE: Not really because I’m already in the business of providing various kinds of services. I don’t think there’s a major disconnect between talking about salvation and extending it to a more holistic concept and construct. So that you move the church out of the business of just providing services on the Sabbath Day and feeding a few people who may show up after worship and start doing that and providing housing on an everyday basis. And those institutions that are doing it, in general, have figured out ways to create firewalls either through nonprofit 501 3-C corporations or making sure that those things are not a part of what they consider to be their religious service — but an extension of those services to meet basic needs of people. These are institutions that people trust, they’re institutions that people identify with because they are part of the community where they get served. And I think if you look at a lot of the major contracts in, for instance, welfare to work, that are going to defense industries, I mean there’s a reality that I think it would be much better served if they would put that money into places where people really are. So I don’t see that as being as great a conflict as many people on the policy side see, but I think long-term these are issues that can be worked out. I think the president is making a very good faith effort to make sure that those institutions that are currently providing those services have more capacity to do so and are able to do so without the kind of impediments that we often run into in trying to do it.

GWEN IFILL: Rev. Church, you operate programs that give social services in East Harlem. If the government wants to help you do that, why not let them?

REV. FORREST CHURCH: My concern here is that the distinction between serving souls and saving souls is not as easy to parse as we might imagine. It’s one thing to have a housing program, for instance, as Rev. Flake does. And he does wonderful, wonderful work in New York City — and to have a separate foundation, receiving monies from the government as well as other places, and build that firewall that has been mentioned. It’s much more difficult in a, say, drug rehabilitation program to have an effective program that doesn’t bring the power of faith into it. I’m concerned about the deregulation idea, not so much that the government should not consider very seriously supporting some of these programs as now established under law. But the concern I have is that they will end up deregulating and who is going to do the due diligence? There are so many thousands of programs with the billions of dollars that are going to be offset from present government welfare programs to these religiously based ones that I can see all kinds of blurring of the distinction between church and state over the years.

GWEN IFILL: Okay. Stephen Goldsmith that gives you a lot to respond to, but let’s pick one. How about the idea about who decides which religious groups actually get this help? Say the Nation of Islam which runs these anti-drug programs and housing projects, do they qualify?

STEPHEN GOLDSMITH: Well, we have a little bit of a false impression here. There’s government money for drug treatment. There’s government money for shelters. There’s government money for homelessness, there’s government money health care. What the president has said is the government has a responsibility through its funding streams to assist people in those circumstances and that we shouldn’t be prejudiced against faith-based groups. They should have the right to bid for that money in providing those services and there may be… if a drug addict is out on the street, he can go through a secular doorway and receive help or he can elect to go through a Christian or Jewish or Islamic doorway to receive help. And if his help brings him to a belief in God, which produces optimism and self-confidence, more power to it. So no one is going to select which religion. This is a performance-based contracting system and what the president said today is our government should not be biased against religious providers.

GWEN IFILL: And whose role is it? Mr. Flake used the term firewall. Whose role is it to construct that firewall and to enforce it?

STEPHEN GOLDSMITH: Well, as a couple other presenters tonight mentioned, you can look at this both ways. One, is if you are a faith-based organization, you are worried about government intrusion and you can say, (a), I don’t want any of your money or, (b), I will take it through creating a 501 C-3. The other way to look at it is in terms of a government auditor, the same restrictions, the same performance requirements that are placed on a secular provider should be imposed upon the faith-based provider and the government contracting and auditing provisions should take place there as well.

GWEN IFILL: Sounds like the potential for a lot of red tape.

STEPHEN GOLDSMITH: Well, I certainly hope not. In fact I think it’s a good point, because what we really want to do is measure outcomes. We don’t want to have the government telling people how to treat drugs or how to build the house where the shelter is. We want the government to be saying, look, we’re interested in performance whether it’s faith based or not, that’s the standard that should be used.

GWEN IFILL: Wendy Kaminer, does that address any of your concerns?

WENDY KAMINER: No, it doesn’t. Let’s look at the charitable choice bills that have passed Congress in the last few years and that are now pending in Congress. Virtually all of them or most of them say that federal dollars shouldn’t be used for religious proselytizing in order to protect the freedom of people who are receiving social services. But virtually all of these bills also say that a federally funded sectarian program can use private dollars to engage in religious proselytizing within that program.

Now, money is fungible as the Bush administration essentially acknowledged when it decided to deny U.S. aid to international family planning organizations that use private dollars to do abortion counseling because they felt that that would be federal support for abortion counseling. Charitable choice bills allow for federal support of sectarian religious proselytizing. It’s hard to image a more basic violation of First Amendment freedoms. And it’s also impossible to imagine how you might enforce prohibitions on using federal dollars directly to proselytize without having federal bureaucrats policing the activities of sectarian groups, which they’re not going to want.

GWEN IFILL: Well let’s let Rev. Flake respond to that since he said that a firewall could easily be constructed. Help Wendy Kaminer explain how that could happen.

REV. FLOYD FLAKE: One, it happens because institutions understand that they want to protect the interest of their basic institution, and the basic institution is the church. There’s an understanding of the mission of the church and in so understanding I think they most of all will have been able if they’re doing this kind of work to create those firewalls. I think the other thing is though, there is this sense that because I am a faith-based institution, I understand what the limitations, what it is that I can and cannot do. And there are already government processes in place that are able to manage and oversee and I think that we need to let that process take care of itself.

In reality, I think that we throw out this balloon every time something has on it the implement of faith as if these are not people who have some relationship to America, they’re not Americans, they have no connection to the government, they pay their taxes. They deserve to have some of those benefits come back. And if they come back through that particular institution, that is all for the good because, again, those institutions are in the communities where those people are. They’re in the communities where they serve the people. And the level of trust is far superior to the level of trust that they have for the government. And so I think what we have to do is give it a chance and what we’ve already learned is that in most instances because the people who are delivering the services come with a whole different attitude, they don’t come as if they are employees of the government. They come because they feel this is a calling. And when people bring their calling into it, they’re able to deliver that service and their primary concern is not how they’re going to get around government rules, how they’re going to function in such a way that they don’t deliver the service, but rather all they’re looking for — and I think the president is offering is– let’s do it better because we realize that… capacity constraints and we can build those capacities and make it work. I think we’re smart enough to build the firewalls if we have to.

GWEN IFILL: Rev. Church, do you think that it’s possible that if the local churches, if faith-based institutions step up that the government will step back?

REV. FORREST CHURCH: Two things, first of all this question of it being fungible. We were offered at All Souls Unitarian Church in New York City once a $10,000 gift from the state Senate of New York for our heating program. Now, I could have applied that money to our feeding program and freed some $10,000 from the already budgeted monies for that program for some other sectarian purpose. So there is enormous opportunity for "fudging" this money. The second thing is, some of the programs that have been mentioned by the president as potential models for this, say, Chuck Colson’s prison ministry, magnificent programs that should not in any way be tampered with by government red tape, and I understand that, but those are successful programs primarily because they are so evangelical, faith based and faith focused. I think we run into a wilderness in a thicket if we go too far in this direction.

GWEN IFILL: A chance for a final response, Mr. Goldsmith?

STEPHEN GOLDSMITH: Individuals should have choices. Those in need should have choices as well as those with money. And if they can walk through the door, have an opportunity in their neighborhood through their community church for hope and faith and services, they should have that right. And if they elect to go through a secular door, they should have that right as well. The president today took some very important steps to make the playing field even and help people who prosperity has left behind.

GWEN IFILL: Gentlemen, thank you all very much for joining us.