Roundtable Discussion on Faith-Based Initiatives

Barney Frank, U.S. Congressman
Charles Glenn, Boston University
Wendy Kaminer, The Radcliffe Institute
Dennis Shirley, Boston College

Date: March 19, 2001
Location: Devlin 101


On March 19th, the Boisi Center hosted a roundtable discussion on President Bush's new Faith-Based Charitable Funding Initiative featuring U.S. Congressman Barney Frank, Dr. Wendy Kaminer of the Radcliffe Institute and the Atlantic Monthly, Dr. Dennis Shirley of the Lynch School of Education, and Dr. Charles Glenn of Boston University. Dr. Alan Wolfe, director of the Boisi Center, served as moderator for the evening.

In one of the liveliest events of the semester, panelists and audience members engaged in an informed debate that often ranged beyond the specifics of the Bush proposal. Congressman Frank saw Bush's initiative as marking an important shift in the conservative position regarding social welfare. In the 1980's President Reagan suggested that government was the problem, rather the solution to social welfare problems. "Now," said Frank, conservatives are saying that "...government is not the problem, but the source of funds." Frank was not categorically against providing support to religious groups as long as they were not allowed to practice employment discrimination on religious grounds, and they did not use funds to "inculcate" their ideological beliefs. However, an audience member pointed out in the discussion period that such criteria breaks precedent, given that the government already funds numerous agencies that promote a set of ideological beliefs, using Planned Parenthood as an example.

Both Professor Glenn and Professor Shirley, who have worked directly with faith-based organizations, saw churches as important sites for addressing the problems within their communities. Glenn, who spent several years overseeing the busing policies of the Massachusetts' Educational System, felt that government alone could not stimulate productive energies in inner city communities. Professor Shirley, who has worked with alliances between schools and faith based groups in Texas agreed, stating that religious groups can be effective in aiding social problems because individuals in poor communities truly believe that their religious institution is the one institution that they actually own.

While acknowledging the virtues religion in general might provide society, panelists also acknowledged the invitation that the proposal offered for religious discrimination. Wendy Kaminer pointed to the example of religious groups who under current federal law have setup independent-secular foundations like Catholic Charities to receive government funding, and argued that this current system has worked well without opening up further constitutional arguments, "If it isn't broke, why fix it?"