Last week, in what was billed as the second major policy speech of his presidential campaign, Vice President Al Gore proposed a “New Partnership” between government and religion in America. Mr. Gore proposed expanding an initiative known as “charitable choice” through which religious organizations can receive government grants to provide social services.
Predictably, devotees of the strict separation of religion and state (with liberal Jewish organizations in the front rank) promptly announced their dismay over the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee’s break with the liberal camp’s dogma. This criticism of Mr. Gore and the charitable choice effort is wrongheaded, especially coming from the Jewish community.
Federal, state and local governments already work in partnership with private organizations to fund the delivery of social programs – programs such as drug rehabilitation, caring for the homeless and combating youth violence. They do so for a variety of reasons the most compelling of which is the recognition that these outside entities are often tied into the local communities that require these services and understand how to best deliver them efficiently and successfully in a way that a government agency never could.
Until the passage of the welfare reform legislation which contained the first charitable choice provision, religiously affiliated organizations were shut out of this partnership even though many such organizations already run effective service programs with minimal resources.
Charitable choice proponents say that religious groups should not be discriminated against and shut out of this critical public-private partnership if they can successfully provide these services with measurable success. Faith based organizations [or “FBOs”] must qualify under religion-neutral criteria to receive and keep their government grants and, importantly, ensure that they not coerce recipients of these services to participate in religious activities if they choose not to. These safeguards and others are important to strike the proper balance among fundamental American values.
The basic theory of charitable choice is that FBOs, in Gore’s words, “have done what government can never do love their neighbors no matter how beaten down, how hopeless, how despairing.” That people motivated to do “G-d’s work” and serve their fellow man do so with incredible energy and compassion that flows from a religious commitment, in Jewish terms, to be G-d’s partner on this earth.
Moreover, proponents recognize that the downtrodden who seek help and opportunity to begin their lives anew must be offered a path to spiritual rejuvenation and self-esteem alongside the paths to physical and material health. That, again quoting Gore, “faith in itself is essential to spark a personal transformation – and to keep that person from falling back into delinquency or dependency.”
Jews should know these principles to be true. Our community, like no other, has built Jewish social service agencies through which we seek to fulfill our mission to serve our fellow man as we seek to reflect G-d’s trait of chesed. If asked, most Jews will rightly answer that their direct involvement in and support for these social service agencies is a Jewish activity, in fact, a mitzvah.
Moreover, many Jewish social service agencies regularly include some form of Jewish educational component as part of their programming. Whether it is a Passover Seder at a geriatric care center or a Chanukah play at a early-childhood center, our community’s social service agencies – some of which already receive considerable amounts of governmental funding – are Jewish social service agencies in form and content.
Despite these facts and despite the central role these agencies and social service plays in American Jewish life (and, mysteriously, despite the fact that many of these agencies already receive considerable government support for their activities), liberal Jewish organizations voice opposition to charitable choice on behalf of the American Jewish community. How can Jewish leaders voice this opposition when our community’s experience demonstrates at the highest level the truths of the philosophy underlying charitable choice?
It is likely that once again many in the Jewish community have allowed unthinking devotion to the mantra of church-state separation to cloud their judgment and blind them to other values and experience. Al Gore has long been a friend of the Jewish community and continues to enjoy high levels of support from American Jews to this day. Sometimes it takes a friend to make one think anew about one’s long held beliefs.
Mr. Gore has challenged all Americans, and American Jews in particular, to recognize the notion “that religious values should play no role in addressing public needs [is a] hollow secularism” that is wrong and that we must open ourselves up to embracing “a better way.” It falls to the broader Jewish community to decide whether to listen to their friends and embrace this new partnership.