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A faith too saturated?

Books | DiIulio would leave the playing field tilted against thoroughly religious charities

Issue: "Schock factor," Jan. 31, 2009

Sometimes similar words disguise huge differences. Those who investigate the very limited success of the Bush faith-based initiative, which began eight years ago this week, might examine a book by John DiIulio, who in 2001 headed the attempt.

Godly Republic: A Centrist Blueprint for America's Faith-Based Future (University of California Press, 2007) is a decent book by a good man, but it incorporates a massive contradiction. On the one hand, DiIulio wanted and wants a level playing field for federal grantmaking: no tilt favoring secularist social service organizations, no tilt favoring religious ones. That's as it should be.

On the other hand, DiIulio wanted and wants a ban on federal grants going to groups that inseparably mix together their religious beliefs and their anti-poverty work. Should government funds go to programs that fight alcoholism and drug abuse effectively by stressing evangelism? No way-unless the organization separates its religious teaching from the social services it offers.

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Now, thoroughly religious programs may be wise to refuse federal grants, given the strings normally attached, but what's fascinating here is DiIulio's belief that such a ban does not mean that the playing field is tilted. He comes to that conclusion by distinguishing "faith-based" from "faith-saturated" programs. "Faith-based" is mildly religious-that's good in the DiIulio framework-but "faith-saturated" means it's time for a quick goodbye. Faith-saturated programs are so off the charts that we should obviously ban them (like saturated fats) from Washington consideration.

Well, that wasn't obvious to me and it's still not obvious. If the public-policy goal is to help change lives so that we have less crime, less alcoholism, and less drug addiction, then all groups that produce such positive results (and don't engage in any criminal activity) should be eligible. And there's no violation of the First Amendment in such a process when individuals rather than officials make the call-which is why vouchers and tax credit approaches are far superior to the same old same old grantmaking.

Faith-saturated tradition

By Marvin Olasky

Faith saturation has dominated the American religious tradition. Colonial poet Edward Taylor wrote, "Oh! That my love might overflow my heart/To fire the same with love. . . . Lord, blow the Coal: Thy love enflame in me." Pastor Nathaniel Ward wrote in 1645, "That man is in a lethargy who does not sensibly feel God shaking the heavens over his head and the earth under his feet."

Al Mohler, president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, came out in 2008 with three faith-saturated books from three different publishers. Desire and Deceit (Multnomah) shows persuasively what its subtitle summarizes: "The real cost of the new sexual tolerance."

He Is Not Silent: Preaching in a Postmodern World (Moody) emphasizes preaching as worship and worries that "in the average evangelical church, the God of the Bible would never be known by watching us worship."

Atheism Remix (Crossway) is a clear response to the Bible-bashing of atheists Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens.

He Is Not Silent's historical references concerning preaching are particularly useful. Mohler quotes Puritan Richard Baxter's famous remarks, "I preach as a dying man to dying men," and notes that challenges have changed since Baxter's day but a preacher's sense of urgency should be just as strong. Mohler also describes the preaching appeal of 19th-century pastor Charles Spurgeon, who instructed his students to read the Bible and the newspaper side-by-side: Current events illustrated timeless truths.

And if we're faith-saturated, how do we view hot-button policy issues? Charles M. North and Bob Smetana try to use economic reasoning to tell us in Good Intentions (Moody, 2008), and their results are usually useful. In poverty-fighting, for example, they emphasize that spiritual assets-purpose, self-discipline, a thirst to learn-can bring people out of material poverty, but material transfers for most are just a short-term fix. That's why governmental dominance of poverty-fighting has been so destructive to so many of the poor.

Marvin Olasky
Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD News Group and the author of more than 20 books, including The Tragedy of American Compassion. Follow Marvin on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.

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