The Common Good
March-April 2001

The Conscience of the State

by Jim Wallis | March-April 2001

Breakfast in the White House can be dangerous to the prophetic vocation.

President Bush's support for faith-based initiatives has sparked a raging debate about the separation of church and state. But are we worrying about the right things?

My deeper concern is the prophetic integrity of religious groups who might appropriately receive some government funding. Why? Because those in power often prefer the service programs of faith communities to their prophetic voice for social justice.

In the early days of the Clinton administration, the president expressed support for the work many of us in the religious community were doing to solve social problems. I remember personal notes from the White House and talk about "working partnerships." But in 1996, President Clinton signed a welfare reform bill that lacked crucial supports needed by single mothers and their children to move out of poverty. Some of us spoke out. Police arrested 55 inner-city pastors in the Capitol Rotunda as we read the words of the prophet Isaiah, "Woe to the legislators of infamous laws who cheat the poor among my people."

The personal notes from the White House and discussions of partnerships suddenly stopped. Dialogue with the president apparently didn't include criticism. But in the tradition of biblical prophets such as Isaiah, the religious community is called to speak truth to power. Having had breakfast in the White House and been arrested for protesting its policies, I've learned the former is more dangerous to the prophetic vocation.

I didn't vote for President Bush, but I was one of the religious leaders who met with him in Austin to discuss the role of faith-based organizations in overcoming poverty. And I've welcomed the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives because it's often those grassroots groups that are closest to the problems of a community-and they are often the ones that can develop the most successful solutions. Why not forge partnerships with the most effective nonprofits, both religious and secular? And why discriminate against nonprofits because they are religious?

The idea of public-private partnerships including faith-based organizations is not new-federal funds have gone to groups such as Catholic Charities for years. The first federal office on faith-based and community partnerships was in Clinton's Department of Housing and Urban Development under Andrew Cuomo. HUD's effective partnering with black churches, Catholic sisters, and Jewish community groups to increase home ownership and affordable housing for low-income families bears emulating in the new administration.

It's entirely possible to link the efforts of faith-based groups with government in ways that respect the First Amendment and the pluralism of a democratic society. The guidelines for how best to do that will inevitably be the subject of public discussion and even legal battles. But the separation of church and state need not require the removal of faith from public life.

In fact, focusing primarily on church-state controversies is a distraction from the real issue. For decades, liberals and conservatives debated the welfare system while millions of children remained trapped in misery. We must not get sidetracked again into a debate that leaves our poorest children behind.

Instead, we should keep our eyes on the prize, as the old civil rights anthem says, and focus our energies on the most effective models for overcoming the poverty that imprisons our youngest and most vulnerable citizens. That's what the new office in the White House should help us do.

I was heartened to hear President Bush say, "Government will never be replaced by charities and community groups." That will be tested by those who want faith communities to be the clean-up crews for bad social policy and take over the problem of poverty in America. The president is also right to say that "compassion is the work of a nation, not just a government." But justice, not just compassion, is necessary to overcome poverty, and that is also the work of a nation.

How can religious groups safeguard their prophetic integrity as they partner with government? That's far more important than the legal controversies. The biblical prophets held rulers, judges, and employers accountable to the demands of justice. We should too. Faith communities must never become mere service providers; we are also called to be prophetic interrogators. Why do so many people remain poor in the midst of such amazing prosperity? In his address to the Presidential Prayer Breakfast, President Bush quoted Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. as saying, "The church must be reminded that it is not the master or the servant of the state, but rather the conscience of the state."

Practically, that means evaluating all of the Bush administration's policies by how they impact poverty. Will people of faith challenge excessive tax cuts and budget priorities that benefit the wealthy and leave few resources to invest in effective anti-poverty strategies? Will we insist that child tax credits be refundable so that low-income families also benefit? Will we push for a health care policy that includes the 10 million children who are without coverage? Will we advocate for poor working families who need livable incomes and affordable housing? When it comes time to reauthorize welfare reform, will we make sure to fund the critical elements families need to move out of poverty's deadly cycle?

Dynamic new collaborations between faith-based groups and government are vitally needed, but they must not mute our prophetic voice. When we met with George W. Bush before Christmas, I felt he really did listen. I hope that the new White House office will become a two-way listening post between faith communities and the government.

John Dilulio, the new office director, has spent much of his time listening in poor communities. He is a rare academic who believes in the "street test" for evaluating good ideas. John is a good friend who has been involved on the board and policy team of Call to Renewal for several years. Steve Goldsmith, presidential adviser to the new faith-based and community initiatives, is also a friend and was a very creative mayor in Indianapolis. Both John and Steve have a balanced approach concerning the role of government and the contributions of nonprofit organizations from the civil society. Most important, they are pragmatic and passionate about actually getting things done that most benefit our poorest children and families.

BUSH ASKED US in Austin how to speak to the nation's soul. We suggested he make poverty, and especially poor children, a major priority in his inaugural address. He did. And he disarmed the old debilitating liberal/conservative debate by saying, "Whatever our views of its cause, we can agree that children at risk are not at fault."

I asked him to surprise us, and I think he did that too. I can't remember a Republican or, for that matter, a Democrat, talking as much about poverty in an inaugural address. After our meeting, Bush candidly admitted to me that he didn't have much personal experience with poor neighborhoods like mine. In his speech, the new president said honestly, "Many in our country do not know the pain of poverty. But we can listen to those who do."

It's right to test words by deeds, but it's wrong to not give someone a chance. If Al Gore was in the White House, I'm convinced he would also be supporting faith-based initiatives, and we would be talking to him, too, about the demands of justice. We may disagree with President Bush on many issues-such as the death penalty, the missile shield, or the appointment of John Ashcroft. But in his expressed commitments to fighting poverty, and working with people of faith to do it, I believe we should give him a chance, and even help him turn his strong inaugural words into reality. I think many of us in the churches are inclined to do that.

If words don't turn into deeds, it won't be long before the new president hears the prophetic voice of faith-based organizations paraphrasing the prophet Amos, "Take away from me your empty words, but let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream."

Jim Wallis is editor-in-chief of Sojourners. Portions of this column were published in The New York Times and The Washington Times.

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