Two weeks ago reporters presented two sides of the story concerning the Clinton/Powell summit on volunteerism. One side, emphasizing Philadelphia's brotherly love, was summit-gung-ho; the other, noting that good vibrations cannot make up for government welfare reductions, was summit-scornful.
The problem, however, is that there was a third side, and it was not heard.
Maybe that third position can best be grasped by thinking of the judge late last month who declared cigarettes to be a delivery vehicle for a drug, nicotine. The two sides quoted by summit reporters were arguing about the delivery vehicle: government or volunteers? But the more important question, one that was ignored, concerned the substance being delivered.
That question is critical in poverty fighting. Historically and in recent times, programs (whether government-run or volunteer-based) that provide entitlement, live by bureaucracy, and attempt to banish God, almost never work. Programs that are challenging, personal, and spiritual, if they are well-managed, do. Overall, smaller organizations tend to do better than larger ones, but changing the delivery vehicle is of little help if the same substance is delivered.
For instance, will wiping graffiti off a wall yield more than a politician's photo opportunity if the attitudes that produced the graffiti in the first place remain unchanged? Will thousands of mentors cut down teen pregnancy rates, if the mentors do not push for abstinence? (The use of contraceptives with a 90 percent success rate will eventually result in pregnancy.)
Substance, substance. It may be a good thing that the state of California will give employees release time to tutor children (although paid volunteering does seem to be a contradiction in terms). But reading levels in California plunged when state educrats disregarded phonics, and changing the delivery system for teaching children without changing the substance will not help much.
The summit skipped by questions of substance for three reasons. First was public relations: Applause all around plays better than ideological discussion. But some summit defenders of the welfare mentality were also doing a clever tactical repositioning. They know that most Americans want to help people in poverty who are willing to work hard, but not those who are unwilling. They know that most Americans are ready to insist on the centrality of work, family, and faith, and are unwilling to pay more in taxes to enable the opposite. Therefore, their mission is clear: Change part of the delivery system from government to corporate, with companies looking for government favors pressuring their employees to volunteer for neoliberal entitlement programs.
The summit was also substanceless because the few conservatives involved in its planning were willing to bleach out their ideas in the interest of broad acceptability. Conservative welfare reform always has had both the carrot (we will help) and the stick (we'll require you to work). Both parts are necessary, since without real pressure there is often unwillingness to change behavior. The summit narrowed its focus to become all sweetness: Mentor the children. But streetwise folks know they cannot help the children without challenging many of the parents to change their ways.
None of these comments is intended to criticize discerning volunteerism. But just as there is nothing holy in faith itself-the key question is always, faith in what?-so there is no redemption in vague volunteerism itself. Christ is the answer; volunteering by itself is morally neutral. A stress on method alone is social madness.
What should discerning Christians do when the Clinton/Powell photo op crowd arrives? I'm reminded of an old Texas story about a young farm girl out milking the family cow when a stranger approaches and asks to see her mother.
"Momma," the young lady calls out, "there's a man here to see you." The mother looks out the kitchen window and replies, "Haven't I always told you not to talk to strangers? You come in this house right now." The girl protests: "But momma, this man says he is a United States senator." The wise mother replies, "In that case, bring the cow in with you."
When the summiteers come calling, head for cover and bring the cow in too.