All of God's children are talking about faith-based organizations these days and what these groups are doing to lift up the poor, reduce teen pregnancy, fight crime and rebuild urban neighborhoods. Their work is a big issue in the 2000 presidential campaign. Texas Gov. George W. Bush talks about them all the time. Vice President Gore gave a speech on the very subject last month.
From the perspective of plain English, there's a serious problem: Faith-based organizations is a very strange term, and so is its abbreviation, FBO. Those letters might disturb conservatives who love FBOs, since they're so close to FOBs. (You know what those are.) "It's a little antiseptic," says Peter Wehner of Empower America, a conservative group. "It sounds a little stiff and a little off, as if someone is trying to say something without really saying it."
My interest in this is personal. I've been working on a project about good works churches are doing, as a way of trying to figure out, among other things, what government should -- and shouldn't -- do to help them. But whenever I say faith-based organizations, friends and colleagues often cringe. Is there a better term? I'll get back to that.
FBOs, quite simply, are religious institutions that are trying to solve social problems. They encompass soup kitchens run by synagogues. They include teen pregnancy programs organized by mosques. Christian prison fellowship programs are FBOs, and so are neighborhood development groups that bring together churches, synagogues and mosques.
The main reason for using "faith-based" is that it's a neutral term that can describe all religions and religious denominations. If you say "church-based," you leave out Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists and all manner of other religious groups. In the United States, we honor pluralism. Ralph Reed, the former director of the Christian Coalition, was conscious of this and he often referred to "people of faith" and not simply to Christians. (The abbreviation POF, however, never caught on.)
One popular way around the clunky FBO problem is to refer to "congregations" and to "congregation-based" programs, as does Ram Cnaan, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania. It's a good solution -- up to a point. The problem, says Mike Gerson, a speechwriter for the Bush campaign, is that "prison fellowships aren't congregation-based," and neither are a lot of other religiously inspired programs.
Mr. Gerson has been grappling with this question for a long time -- he started writing about it as an aide to former senator Dan Coats, an Indiana Republican who was a pioneer on the FBO front. Mr. Gerson can give a catalogue of terms that don't work -- but shares my frustration in trying to find one that does.
"Do you call them redemptionist programs?" he asks. "That sounds like an altar call. Values-oriented programs? That's much too vague. Religious nonprofits? It sounds like you're writing a term paper." And he notes that whatever term you use, it must encompass a lot of different kinds of activity. "There are people who go in to stop gang wars and get shot at, and there are people who work in mentoring programs," he says. "They're both values-oriented, but they are very different."
One common solution in the rhetoric of Gore, Bush and others is to refer, very fast, to "churches, synagogues and mosques." Again, a decent enough solution, but clumsy and still not inclusive of all faiths or all programs rooted in faith. "Religiously based" programs is okay, but it doesn't sing -- and it raises another issue: You can be interested in religion, but not necessarily have faith. A program in the basement of a religious institution may or may not be built around faith. Many churches, for example, allow outside groups to use their facilities.
Even if you accept the "faith-based" term, you can still argue about what word should come after it. Some refer to "faith-based charity," others to "faith-based social action." Charity implies someone doing something on behalf of someone else. "Social action" generally implies people organizing on their own behalf, or on behalf of their communities.
The truth is that faith-based organizations encompass both kinds of activity. The Industrial Areas Foundation, organized decades ago by that practical radical Saul Alinsky, does a lot of its work through churches. Or take the Nehemiah program, which has many offshoots, and which, among other things, has built more than 2,700 homes for lower-income people. Religious congregations were central to its success, and it could be seen as engaged in both organizing and charitable work.
Readers of this column could perform a great service to thousands of people who work in those faith-based organizations and help speechwriters in both political parties by coming up with a term better than FBO. You'd also be helping journalists, and you'd get my friends off my back.
What's the word? If you have suggestions or other ideas, write to Chatter, The Washington Post Magazine, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071, or e-mail email@example.com. Include your name, address and telephone number. E.J. Dionne will credit contributions he uses.