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Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life

The Role of Religion and Faith-based Initiatives in Urban Communities

Event Recap

On October 21st, Steven Goldsmith, Special Advisor to President Bush on Domestic Issues and Faith Based Initiatives, spoke as part of an evening program at Gasson Hall assessing the status of President Bush’s measures to promote the delivery of social services through religious and community programs. The panel, co-sponsored by the College of Arts and Sciences and the Boisi Center, was moderated by Professor Alan Wolfe, director of the Boisi Center, and featured commentary by Father Tom Massaro of Weston Jesuit School of Theology, Father Joseph O’Keefe, interim Dean of the Lynch School of Education at Boston College, and Professor Marc Landy of the Political Science Department at Boston College.

Goldsmith began his talk by describing his relationship with the black churches in Indianapolis during his tenure as mayor of that city. The conversations he had with black church leaders there shaped his conviction that the social services provided by urban churches deserved government support and that churches could effectively be used to provide services more directly to the community. He disagreed with those who have argued that the government should leave all welfare programs to the churches, staking his position on the ground that government and churches should work in community based partnerships to provide social services. Goldsmith argued that churches, because they are based in the community where the problems exist, are more likely to provide sensitive, comprehensive and efficient delivery of those services than the government.

A number of obstacles exist, however, and Goldsmith acknowledged them openly. One problem is government bureaucracy. Accounting systems measuring performance must be attached to federal funds, and politicians have still not figured out a way to address this issue without resorting to heavy handed regulatory procedures that would unduly interfere with the operations of churches. Another obstacle is that providing federal funding to churches could violate the separation of church and state. Goldsmith cited the example of drug abuse and homeless shelter programs that were effective, yet run with the explicit purpose of proselytizing to those who came through the door. He argued that while such programs should not be the only option available to needy citizens, neither should they be discouraged from seeking federal funding. While the panelists were supportive of the idea of providing government funded social services through the churches, they also expressed a variety of reservations about the logistics of implementation. Many of the comments revolved around the thorny issue of trying to define what constitutes “religion” in awarding federal funding, and how much distance one needed to put between the interests of religion and government. Goldsmith argued that if funding were given to religious groups they would be obligated to serve everyone who came to their doors. He also argued that if a religious group met government qualifications then it should be entitled to receive the money even if its views were unpopular and defamatory of other religious groups. The evening’s discussion made it clear that while there was the potential for positive gain in this initiative, there were also serious concerns.

The entire program can be viewed on Front Row at www.bc.edu/frontrow

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