Issue Addressed: Faith and Public Policy
Editorial Published in: The Washington Post
August 2001 by John A. Calhoun
The issue of funding faith-based public services is simpler than some would think. We
are not talking about the gamut of faith-related services. Faith-linked programs, run
by and/or in religious facilities, have been providing effective community services with
public money for years. They should continue.
Faith-filled programs have rejected public funding or should not get it; because they
mandate religious participation as a condition of receiving services. Besides, most of
them do not want to render unto Caesar. That leaves faith-based programs. The
question is, should faith-based programs, those that demonstrate, but don’t mandate
faith, be permitted to use public money to do public good?
Faith-linked programs draw little fire. When I oversaw Head Start as US. commissioner
of the Administration for Children, Youth and Families, a substantial number of our
programs were located in churches. When I was commissioner of Youth Services in
Massachusetts, some of the most effective and valued contractors in the state were
Catholic Charities, Jewish Family and Children’s Services and Christian Children’s Home.
No one complained in these cases or in countless others around the nation because the
services provided were not entwined in faith.
Faith-filled programs require religious commitment and conversion on the part of those
served. Faith is a prerequisite for participation. Clearly in this case church and state are
not separated if public funds are involved. Most of these institutions reject Caesar’s coin
outright or refuse the restrictions that come with it.
That leaves the middle ground: the faith-based programs. Faith is neither a prerequisite
nor a mandatory element of these programs. It is, however openly practiced in ways
that are closely linked to the program.
The Valley, which operates in space provided by the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in
New York, deals with some of the toughest kids in Harlem. The program, which receives
public and foundation grants, includes intensive mentoring, job training, GED work and
a weekly Grace Circle. John Bess, who heads the program, says that the Grace Circle is
not required. But that it sustains him personally and that most of the kids wouldn’t miss
The Children’s Trust Neighborhood Initiative serves one of the most broken areas of the
District of Columbia. It provides an array of standard social services but begins each day
with a voluntary prayer. Its clients often turn to faith for solace and promise in the midst
of personal and family pain.
Mentors for Brooklyn’s juvenile offenders are drawn from local congregations. Brooklyn
District Attorney Charles Hynes and his staff gathered a broad-based group to design
the program and made sure that non-sectarian alternatives were provided. The
experience to date? Mentors coming from congregations are reliable, kind…. and they
These are just a few of the dozens of examples we have gathered over the past three
years of publicly valued services being provided by people who live and witness their
faith, but do not impose it as a condition of help. These programs meet real needs.
We need their help; what do we do about their faith?
Let me be clear. They need to meet the same rules as other not-for profits. Their work
must not be taken on faith but on results. Are at-risk kids staying in school, addicts off
drugs, and parolees out of prison?
But each of us must ask himself: Would I be there for the troubled and the troubling—
the juvenile returning from an institution, the violently angry adult? Can I endure the
anger and the pain? Can I live my faith, but not compel others to do so?
There are only a precious few of us who can answer yes. For those who can, I say, let
them keep their faith as they go about providing public good.