As a writer whose work is sometimes vetted by in-house attorneys for possible libel or other problems, I can tell you there are two kinds of lawyers. One will explain why you can't do what you want to do. The other will deduce what is at the heart of what you're trying to do, and then figure out a way you can do it.
It's the second kind of thinking we'll need if we are to avoid constitutional land mines in an effort to enlist religious organizations in the war on America's social problems.
What prompts the thought is the declaration in Indianapolis last Thursday that a President George W. Bush would enlist "armies of compassion" -- community and religious organizations -- to help America solve its nagging social problems.
The remarks by the Texas governor came some two months after his White House-seeking rival, Vice President Al Gore, said he would like to use faith-based charities to help with "drug treatment, homelessness and youth violence prevention."
The proposals, neither of which has been fully spelled out, are fraught with constitutional, religious and civic danger. Do you want the government poring over the church's books? What do you do when a government-funded religious charity insists on hiring only members of its own denomination? How do you maintain the wall of separation between church and state if the church is, in effect, a subcontractor of the state?
These are serious issues, and not just to the civil liberties professionals. But the proposals themselves make so much sense, I'd like to see some smart lawyers put their minds to figuring out how we can make them work.
That faith-based charities can (sometimes) solve problems that defy the best minds of government agencies is beyond doubt. Church ministries have rescued drug addicts and alcoholics who formerly were in and out of all sorts of public and private clinics. Religious groups from the Salvation Army to the Samaritan Ministry have taken homeless people who wouldn't have gone near a government homeless shelter and brought them to fledgling self-sufficiency. These groups have been successful because they don't simply deliver treatment and other services; they transform.
And they do so because they go where government cannot go: inside the men and women they serve.
As Samaritan Ministry's executive director Carter Echols put it a while back: "As a people of faith, we believe not in handouts but in entering into a real relationship with people."
Relationships, unlike entitlements, are mutual and personal. They involve expectations and disappointments but also such emotions as guilt, remorse, gratitude and love. I don't mean that all faith-based workers feel all these things or that all government agents feel none of them. I mean only that the sorts of commitments and attachments that make it possible for believers to change lives are discouraged as "unprofessional" in government workers.
Government social services are at their best when they deliver services -- checks, counseling, housing chits, training -- for those who qualify for them. Faith workers are at their best when they deliver people -- from despair, from hopelessness, from (dare we say it?) sin.
But who wants government funding deliverance from sin? We may earnestly desire the social results that such deliverance can bring, but we don't want the state mucking around with souls. And that gets very close to the crux of why, we are told, we can't do what Bush and Gore so sensibly urge.
Well, maybe we can do it if we suspend our mutual distrust for long enough to figure it out. Two important steps toward resolving the dilemma already have been proposed. One would take a page from the GI Bill that allowed government education checks to go to private religious institutions -- the University of Notre Dame, for instance -- without raising the specter of state establishment of religion. We could give vouchers to people who qualify for such social services as counseling or drug rehab and let them buy those services from the vendor of their choice -- community clinic or the Salvation Army.
The other proposal, which both Gore and Bush apparently embrace, would make it possible for individual taxpayers to direct a portion of their tax liability to specific approved charities.
No end of people can explain chapter and verse why we can't use government funding to pay for what is known to work. How about a few smart Constitution-loving folk to tell us how we can.