Rochester, Mich.

Dennis Hoover is mistaken when he recommends that we say “Yes to Charitable Choice” [Aug. 7/14]. The issue is exactly the same as with religious schools. If some people believe that God wants them to establish schools for their children, the Constitution says they have the right to do that but not to receive public tax money for it. If they believe God wants them to accept other children into their schools and keep religious indoctrination to a minimum, they still cannot use public tax money. Likewise, if some people believe God wants them to do charitable works and not to restrict the beneficiaries to their own denomination, the Constitution says they have the right to do that but not to receive public tax money for it. There is no question that both activities benefit society. The problem is that how the activities are carried out depends entirely on what those people happen to believe. Government restrictions on how the tax money is spent still do not solve this problem, since the money releases other money to be spent however the religious organization believes it should be. The only consistent position on both questions is the one indicated by the Constitution: no government financial aid to religious organizations, even when their activities benefit society as a whole.


New York City

Dennis Hoover writes that support for charitable choice is linked philosophically to a “new religious center” and not to the religious right. It’s true that moderate groups are now being aggressively recruited to act as service providers under charitable choice contracts. But the core impetus and ideology behind the current spate of legislation and promotion do not come from the center, and they deserve careful scrutiny. The charitable choice concept draws heavily on the thinking of Abraham Kuyper, who developed and implemented the notion of social “pillarization” in the Netherlands a hundred years ago. In Kuyper’s scheme, each ethnic and religious group in a pluralistic society runs its own institutions and services; these separate “pillars” support the social whole, but public services as we have known them in this country–services open to all and fostering interaction and mutual understanding–are made to disappear. Hardcore charitable choice ideologues in the United States make no secret of the fact that they want to see Horace Mann’s conception of “common” schools replaced with a similar patchwork of faith-based or group-based schools. Should this really be on the progressive agenda?

Hoover correctly reports that as the legislation is written, faith-based service providers won’t be able to discriminate against clients on religious grounds. But it is by no means clear that they won’t be able to discriminate on other grounds, notably sexual orientation; moreover, faith-based groups have historically had fairly wide latitude to engage in employment discrimination when claiming a religious rationale, and there is no reason to think this will change when these groups are spending public funds.

Charitable choice is a provision of the failed welfare reform legislation of 1996, founded on the principle that people are impoverished because of bad choices and irresponsible behavior. The systemic causes of poverty and the unprecedented wealth gap of the past twenty-five years are not considered. Part of the neoliberal project clearly involves tempering the harshness and salving some wounds with a dose of good old Christian charity. But should the churches be accepting the basic situation of systemic injustice? What happens to their prophetic voice if they are willing to play the role of junior partner to Pharaoh? This is not just a matter of the churches’ own integrity; nonreligious progressives also have a stake in preserving an independent religious sector that has not been bought out by the totalizing neoliberal agenda.

Judson Memorial Church

The Employment Project

Washington, D.C.

If progressives support charitable choice, they will unnecessarily sacrifice civil liberties in their war against poverty. Charitable choice was designed to allow houses of worship (and other groups that integrate religion into their social service) to receive government grants and contracts for their social service ministries. But how can the government fund faith-drenched services without unconstitutionally advancing religion? Hoover insists that the government will simply require churches and other religious providers to “demonstrate that public funds do not pay for religious speech (specifically ‘sectarian worship, instruction or proselytization’).” But no one has begun to explain how the government will perform this task and otherwise regulate a church or other pervasively religious group without becoming excessively and unconstitutionally entangled with religion.

Although Hoover and others assure us that politicians will pass out a limited number of social service grants and contracts to selected religions without favoritism for “secularism over religion, religion over secularism or for one religion over another,” the truth is that politicians find it almost impossible to resist playing politics with religion, including favoring majority over minority faiths. Furthermore, progressives should ask how the government will insure that social service beneficiaries will truly have the ability to opt out of religious activities in these settings. Finally, progressives should consider the fact that charitable choice attempts to allow a religious provider to reject a particular taxpayer for a tax-funded employee position because he or she isn’t the “right” religion or does not hold the “right” religious beliefs.

What Hoover characterizes as potential minor defects are actually grave structural errors. These problems can be avoided with appropriate safeguards, but such safeguards have been repeatedly rejected by charitable choice supporters. Progressives should not join charitable choice proponents who, for many different reasons, are dismissing profound constitutional and civil liberties concerns. Instead, progressives should raise questions about charitable choice and demand appropriate safeguards to protect individual liberties.

Joint Baptist Committee

Hackensack, N.J.

As a clergyman who cherishes the First Amendment, I was shocked to see a defense of charitable choice in The Nation. Charitable choice goes further in destroying the time-tested separation of church and state, and replaces it with a doctrine of religious accommodation by government, than any initiative on the political agenda. It transforms churches into administrative arms of the state and is a very dangerous idea. Dennis Hoover’s claim that charitable choice is predominantly supported by mainline religious groups is debatable. What is certain is that the judicial doctrine invoked to legitimize charitable choice is a darling of the far right. The dubious constitutional doctrine of non-preferentialism, which asserts that government may support religious groups as long as it doesn’t discriminate among religions, is powerfully championed by the Christian Coalition and receives endorsement from Justices Rehnquist, Scalia and Thomas. Lamentably, Bush, Gore and Lieberman have appropriated this new turn in constitutional interpretation.

Hoover states that faith-based organizations “must demonstrate that public funds do not pay for religious speech,” including proselytization. Whom are we kidding? Does he really believe that when confronted with a commandment from God Almighty to win souls, committed evangelicals will be deterred by what will seem like a bureaucratic nicety? Why should they, when the guiding premise of charitable choice is that services rendered through faith commitments are superior to those delivered by secular agencies? Moreover, charitable choice permits faith-based organizations to serve the needy in religious sanctuaries rather than in secular settings, as has pertained. The stage is set for rampant missioning. No one should ever be placed in the demeaning position of having to compromise his or her religious conscience in the face of neediness and dependence on others. Charitable choice will make this violation commonplace.

Charitable choice augurs other dangers. It will set church against church in a battle for public funds. It will force the courts to pass judgment on competing theological positions in order to determine which churches are pervasively sectarian and which not. Government oversight of public funds will be either rigorous or lax. If lax, churches will be tempted to use funding for their ongoing religious purposes. If strict, government agents will show up at church doors demanding to audit their books. Is that what we want in a nation that professes religious freedom?

Hoover states that charitable choice provides protection for the religious identities of service workers. Yes, for those within the faith of the organization but not for those outside it. Faith-based organizations will be able to discriminate, for example, against those who dance, drink, smoke, are divorced or have had an abortion, if those practices offend the strictures of the faith.

Finally, charitable choice will muffle religion’s prophetic voice. Religion plays its most important social role when it stands outside the precincts of secular power and critiques the abuses of government from the plateau of higher moral values. It’s dubious that churches, as recipients of the state’s largesse, will bite the hand that feeds them. In this age of moral anxiety, of which religious triumphalism is a consequence, it’s become widely assumed that religion can be nothing but good. It’s an ominous blindness. The Founding Fathers knew better. Experience had taught them that the entanglement of religion with state inevitably oppresses religious freedom and elevates the state’s power to dangerous proportions.

Western society has taken 300 years to put the tiger in the cage. It’s disturbing that Dennis Hoover joins those who want to let it loose.

Ethical Culture Society


Hartford, Conn.

The most striking error in these letters is Joseph Chuman’s assertion that charitable choice forces government to determine which religious organizations are “pervasively sectarian.” This problematic task is precisely what the government used to have to undertake under the old “no aid” regime, which denied eligibility for grants to “pervasively sectarian” organizations, and thus unjustly discriminated in favor of providers whose vision of social service could abide secularization. Charitable choice embodies a more robust understanding of government neutrality toward all in a religiously pluralistic and multicultural society. It levels the playing field, requiring not that grantees strip themselves of “sectarianism,” whatever that means, but rather that they be able to account for their use of public funds.

Melissa Rogers frets over the intrusiveness of this accounting requirement, but how can measuring degrees of religious sectarianism be considered less difficult and meddlesome than reviewing accounting records? Rogers will also have to explain why she thinks politicians are more likely to try to play favorites under charitable choice than they were under the old rules.

Rogers is joined by Chuman, Peter Laarman and Paul Chapman in complaining about the fact that charitable choice allows a faith-based organization to hire only those who agree with its religious worldview. But this complaint is simply another way for critics to say they don’t like the way charitable choice levels the playing field. Nothing could be more basic to maintaining the distinctive religious character of an organization than making sure the relevant staff share foundational assumptions. What could be more “totalizing” than forcing all nonprofit grantees into the same secular mold? Consider also that religious organizations have long had an exemption from the bar on religious discrimination in employment found in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, and this exemption is not sacrificed when religious organizations receive public funds not earmarked for specific positions.

Furthermore, the word “choice” is in the label “charitable choice” for good reason. Rogers, Laarman and Chapman are concerned about religious liberty for individual welfare beneficiaries, but the law is clear: Charitable choice mandates that secular programs be available for clients who so choose. Also, if a beneficiary agrees to receive services from a religious provider, he or she is empowered to opt out of explicitly religious activities. Analogous principles of choice have long been reflected in federal subsidy programs for college education (such as the GI Bill).

It is nonsense to charge, as does Chuman, that charitable choice is the “darling of the far right.” Is there really a vast right-wing conspiracy interested in spending public money on welfare services? In achieving genuine neutrality in the relationship between church and state? For rhetorical purposes, it is obvious enough why leftist critics of charitable choice would characterize their own position as “mainstream” and relegate others to the lunatic fringe. But, like it or not, “centrist” is easily the best shorthand way of characterizing charitable choice. Both Al Gore and George W. Bush endorse charitable choice, and Joe Lieberman is a co-chair of Congress’s bipartisan Empowerment Caucus, which supports charitable choice. There are also Democratic governors who have made implementing charitable choice a priority (e.g., Governor Frank O’Bannon of Indiana). The coalition of religious groups that back charitable choice likewise spans the usual left-right divide.

Several critics say charitable choice is somehow uniquely corrupting of religion–in particular that it “will muffle religion’s prophetic voice,” as Chuman puts it. Chuman presumes to tell us that the right social role for religion is to “stand outside” secular power and hand down critiques “from the plateau of higher moral values.” But the actual prophetic tradition includes some who were court insiders. And even if we acknowledge the potentially subversive effects of government subsidies, this is hardly a new problem unique to charitable choice. Religiously affiliated agencies have long received subsidies to deliver services. If religious groups think that it is important to speak out against the systemic sources of injustice (and I wish more did) but fear suffering a complete moral collapse when faced with a grant application, they need not participate. Charitable choice is just an option, not a draft notice.

In fact, legally, charitable choice is consistent with the free speech principle, long touted by liberals in the nonprofit community, that government cannot censor the privately funded speech of grant recipients. For years, right-wing forces have attempted to deny grants to nonprofits that use private money to engage in advocacy activities on behalf of disadvantaged constituencies. Liberals have rightly challenged this, defending the ability of nonprofits to properly account for their use of public funds. Charitable choice says religious nonprofits should not have their privately funded religious speech censored when they take public money to deliver welfare services. We cannot play favorites with the First Amendment rights of nonprofits.

Richard Burke’s letter sniffs at my suggestion that we factor lowly “public opinion” into our thinking. But I wonder if he realizes whose opinions he so pointedly refuses to dignify with a response? More Democrats (61 percent) than Republicans (46 percent) favor the charitable choice concept, and support among African-Americans rises to 74 percent. Recent studies by Mark Chaves of the University of Arizona show that liberal congregations and African-American congregations are the most likely to be interested in participating.

In recent years some voices on the left (see for example Michael Kazin, “The Politics of Devotion,” in the April 6, 1998, Nation) have warned that if the left wants to avoid permanently alienating itself from a mass constituency, it must reacquaint itself with religious progressives and make peace with new antipoverty movements among Christians, such as the Call to Renewal (which supports charitable choice). But, rhetorical gestures notwithstanding, the idea that social policy might actually include religious institutions is still hard for some progressives to get their minds around.