The Magazine

Faith Works

A defense of the president's initiative

Jul 16, 2001, Vol. 6, No. 41 • By CHARLES W. COLSON and MICHAEL NOVAK
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WHEN CIPRIANO MARTINEZ walked through the doors of Teen Challenge of South Texas 11 years ago, victory over drugs seemed unlikely: For Martinez, a balanced diet meant heroin, cocaine, downers, and booze. In and out of prison, he,d already flunked half a dozen drug treatment programs.

Teen Challenge staffers employ many of the same forms of treatment secular counselors use-anger management, job training, and family skills-but there is a big difference. "We don,t believe in the ,once an addict, always an addict, model," explains Jim Heurich, executive director of the South Texas chapter. "We believe that addicts are changed and healed when Christ comes in."

Martinez agrees that hearts can be changed. His was. And he,s been drug-free for 10 years. Such success stories are why President Bush is making government support for faith-based social programs his signature policy.

Not surprisingly, Bush,s proposals have stirred controversy. Secular critics on the right and left have a built-in aversion to religion in public life. But even some of us who advocate for more religious vitality in the public sphere (as did both the Gore-Lieberman and the Bush-Cheney tickets during the recent campaign) have significant concerns that need to be addressed.

One fear is that government funding will force faith communities to compromise their beliefs. Of course, faith groups that have such fears need not accept government money. Indeed, some have already decided not to. Others, however, including the Salvation Army, Samaritan,s Purse, and World Vision, have proven that they can both accept government aid and preserve their independence.

Another fear is that our taxes will end up funding explicitly religious activity. A string of Supreme Court decisions forbids this. And President Bush is firmly against letting it happen. A church-run homeless shelter can use government funds for bed and board, but not Bibles. A faith-based drug treatment program can put government cash towards computer training, but not communion wafers.

But isn,t religious conversion the central purpose and method of many faith-based groups? Of course. Without conversion of heart, they have nothing better to offer than secular groups. But faith-based groups can and do segregate funds. Indeed, it is in their own interest to keep government and church separate from each other.

Some conservatives fear that controversial groups like the Nation of Islam and the Church of Scientology will seek government funds. They already can and do. The Charitable Choice Act passed by Congress two sessions ago allows faith-based programs to compete on an equal footing with secular groups for grants intended to achieve social goals. The Bush proposals rest on legislation already in operation.

This legislation, in fact, makes it hard for controversial groups to receive funding. First, any group that applies for funds-be it secular or religious-must by law meet stringent performance standards. Second, Charitable Choice makes it easier to tell if a charity is succeeding in its mission. Before the advent of Charitable Choice, many organizations won grants in a cloudy atmosphere of unclear standards and lack of competition.

There are other legal protections worth considering. Government-funded faith programs can neither compel people to participate in religious activities nor discriminate against recipients who embrace other faiths. Presbyterians may decline to hire Muslims to operate a Presbyterian after-school program, but they may not discriminate against Muslims who bring their children for care.

Experience shows that many of the needy will pick faith-based programs because they know these programs work. Success rates of those who attend secular drug treatment programs seldom top 10 percent. Contrast that with Teen Challenge, which boasts a success rate of 86 percent (based on two rigorous independent studies performed 24 years apart).

Prison Fellowship Ministries has seen firsthand the success of faith-based reductions in recidivism. Three years ago, then governor Bush gave Prison Fellowship permission to operate the first faith-based prison in America, known as the InnerChange Freedom Initiative in Houston. For 18 hours a day, prisoners who volunteer for the program are immersed in intensive life-skills training and Bible study. After 18 months, they are released, matched with a mentor, given a job, and welcomed in a local church. So far, it has demonstrated remarkable effectiveness. We can report that of the 121 prisoners who have completed the program only 7 are back in custody. That is a recidivism rate of 6 percent, far below a national average that runs between 40 percent and 60 percent.

But the mission of President Bush,s faith-based initiative isn,t simply to help private charities do what they do well. It is to change the way we deal with social problems in America. Critics on the left actually understand this better than many on the right. President Bush wants to replace the tangle of failed government programs with highly motivated intermediate structures: churches, community groups, and so on. The idea is to energize concern for the needy from the bottom up.

In empowering local, faith-based groups, President Bush is revitalizing public notions of moral responsibility. Such notions are not only good for society as a whole but for the individual in need of rehabilitation. One of us (Chuck Colson) has worked in the criminal justice field for 25 years and seen many programs fail precisely because they treat behavior antiseptically. They ignore the learning of real virtues and the turning of the heart against vices. And they leave out a man,s personal connection with his Creator.

Bureaucratic protocol makes it impossible to address the emptiness of soul that goes along with drugs and other forms of self-abuse. By contrast, Teen Challenge, which enthusiastically supports the president,s initiatives, labors under no such restrictions. Its leaders understand what moves people to change their lives. As Cipriano Martinez puts it, at Teen Challenge he found people who "gave me a reason for wanting to straighten my life out," people who "lifted burdens I,d carried for years, and gave me peace, joy, love, and hope."

Charles W. Colson, chairman of Prison Fellowship Ministries, was special counsel to President Nixon and served time in prison for Watergate-related offences. Michael Novak holds the George Frederick Jewett Chair of Religion and Public Policy at the American Enterprise Institute.