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Thomas E. BuckleyNovember 11, 2002

Shortly after his inauguration in January 2001, President George W. Bush announced a partnership between government and “community-serving and faith-based organizations—whether run by Methodists, Muslims, Mormons or good people of no faith at all.” His proposal significantly expanded President Bill Clinton’s “charitable choice” legislation, which allowed religious agencies to compete for federal funding to provide various services without giving up their “religious character.” Bush called for “a level playing field” for all groups, religious as well as secular, who desired to contribute to the nation’s social well-being. At present a bipartisan compromise bill—the Charity Aid, Recovery, Empowerment Act of 2002, also called the CARE Act—sponsored by Senators Joseph Liebermann (Democratic of Connecticut) and Rick Santorum (Republican of Pennsylvania) is before the Senate.


Since the legislation was originally introduced, it has faced stiff opposition from groups who insist that Bush’s initiative, like Clinton’s program, violates the church-state separation mandated by the First Amendment.

Neither “charitable choice” nor the “faith-based initiative” has invented anything essentially new. From the outset of the republic, the First Amendment has not prevented the federal government from allying itself with religious groups. Whether such cooperation worked or not has been much more a political question than a constitutional one. What ultimately succeeded was whatever proved politically viable, that is, mutually useful to the relevant parties: the government, the religious bodies and the general public, or at least that portion of it significant enough to control the discussion. When those parties were satisfied, the courts have managed to satisfy the First Amendment.

Let me cite three examples from history, all concerned for groups the federal government regarded as its dependents: the newly emancipated slaves after the Civil War, the Native Americans in the 19th century and the 20th-century clients of social services in the United States and abroad.

Caring for the Freedmen

As the Civil War ended, the federal government established the Freedmen’s Bureau to care for millions of newly emancipated African Americans. Without homes, property or dependable sources of food and clothing, they were in desperate straits. Headed by Oliver Otis Howard, the bureau became the government’s first welfare agency. When Howard’s agents arrived in the South, they found a number of missionary societies sponsored by northern Protestant churches already at work. The largest and most prominent was the American Missionary Association, whose relief programs had operated throughout the war. After Appomattox, A.M.A. missionaries established scores of schools and colleges that emphasized religion in the classroom and prepared thousands of teachers to teach thousands more. Today Hampton Institute and Atlanta, Dillard, Fisk and Howard universities exemplify the enduring value of their work.

The Freedmen’s Bureau worked closely with this religious organization, providing land, constructing school buildings, supplying government rations and transporting its teachers. The A.M.A. and the bureau shared a common vision: a Christian America structured by the compatible ideologies of free labor and evangelical Protestantism. Some secular relief agencies, angered by what they considered the bureau’s favoritism toward the A.M.A. and other denominational charities—the Baptists, Episcopalians and Methodists also received government assistance—accused Oliver Otis Howard of violating church-state separation. Howard retorted that he was interested in educating the freedmen and would work with any group to further that objective. The criterion he applied to government involvement with religious groups was one of mutual usefulness, the oldest test that governments—local, state and federal—have followed for cooperation in church-state affairs.

Educating Native Americans

Howard did not invent the criterion. It dates from the beginning of the republic, when the federal government supported missionaries to the Native American tribes. Christianity and civilization went hand in hand. In making Indian treaties, George Washington’s administration included provisions for clergymen to live with each tribe in order to teach religion and encourage peaceful relations with the government. Thomas Jefferson encouraged a Presbyterian school among the Cherokees and personally approved federal funding to build a Catholic church and maintain a priest for the Kaskaskia tribe. His successors followed suit. Such arrangements were mutually beneficial to both church and state.

Throughout the 19th century, the government relied on mission stations, which were primarily educational institutions designed to teach basic skills, industrious work habits and Christianity. Baptists, Congregationalists, Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Moravians and Catholics (Jesuits in particular) operated them with federal funding. After the Civil War, Congress established the contract school system. The government offered financial aid on a per capita basis to religious groups that would operate schools on the reservations. Then, at President Ulysses Grant’s urging, the government cooperated even more closely with the churches. Congress established a Board of Indian Commissioners to advise the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Seventy-three agencies that work with 240,000 Native Americans were apportioned among the denominations. Mission boards appointed the agents and other employees to transform agencies into missionary outposts. In effect, the churches ran the Indian reservations at government expense.

The policy left both Catholics and Protestants unhappy, and it ended in the early 1880’s. But contract schools remained, with a rapidly expanding Catholic presence. Religious congregations of women and men opened institutions on reservations with government funds and the help of benefactors like Mother Katherine Drexel. By the early 1890’s, the bulk of federal school monies flowed into Catholic coffers until Protestant resentment doomed the program. Responding to lobbying, Congress gradually cut funding from religiously based reservation schools. The long partnership between church groups and the government in Indian educational and missionary work ended in 1900, not because the courts found it unconstitutional, but because one interested party no longer found it useful. The experience demonstrated the power of religious rivalries to destroy church-state cooperation. President Theodore Roosevelt, however, permitted the Indians to use their trust and treaty funds to educate their children in Catholic mission schools. In response to legal challenges, the Supreme Court in Quick Bear v. Leupp (1908) upheld the constitutionality of that practice.

Funding Social Services

Competition between Catholics and Protestants on the Indian reservations reflected the recurrent religious tensions of 19th-century America. Public schools presented the most conflicted arena, but they did not become a federal concern until the 1940’s. Meanwhile, across the country religious groups opened orphanages, hospitals, dispensaries, old age homes, day care facilities and similar institutions. City and state governments often provided public funds. These institutions provided a service for people for whom government bore some responsibility. When the question was contested, it was compromised. New York, for example, in the constitutional convention of 1894, allowed public funds to support religiously based social services, but not church schools. It turned out that way because Catholics, Protestants and Jews shared in the benefits. Politically, the arrangement satisfied all concerned parties.

The federal government’s policy was settled by the case of Bradford v. Roberts in 1899. The District of Columbia had appropriated $30,000 for a Catholic hospital to construct isolation wards for people with contagious diseases. Ultimately, the Supreme Court ruled that because the hospital was separately incorporated from the church, served a secular purpose and made its services available to all, its religious affiliation did not matter. Bradford established a precedent for church/state contractual relationships in social welfare. It turned on the “arguably non-religious” character of the social services the hospital rendered and represented a striking alternative to the manner in which courts had treated religiously based schools. It continues today in local, state and federal contracts for faith-based social service programs. The budget for Catholic Charities in 1994, before charitable choice became legislation, was almost two billion dollars. Sixty-five percent came from government funding.

That same cooperation between government and religious agencies developed in the 20th century in overseas programs, such as famine and disaster relief, refugee aid and assistance in development programs. Today, faith-based groups handle the great bulk of federal aid money. The government operates on the presumption that their purposes are essentially secular. This originated in refugee services after World War II. As the guns fell silent, millions of Europeans were refugees, so-called displaced persons. Perhaps 600 private agencies had been helping out during the war; and in the aftermath virtually everyone saw the moral necessity for government and voluntary organizations of every stripe to continue to work together. Two elements contributed to the sense of duty that inspired international refugee service: America’s new position of world responsibility in the global balance of power and the religious commitments of Americans, along with the impulses of religious bodies to meet the needs of suffering human beings. Protestants, Catholics and Jews effectively submerged their differences in order to work together under the broad language of humanitarianism. The emphasis was on basic relief services for anyone in need.

That continued throughout the cold war era. Participants and observers alike recognized the “remarkable partnership” between church and state in refugee assistance abroad. In the ensuing years, government assistance to religious groups took multiple forms: ocean freight reimbursements to agencies shipping relief materials abroad, gifts of government surplus food and property, contracts for overseas refugees and resettlement costs, and development grants. By the early 1960’s, government assistance to private foreign aid was at record levels and growing. The World Church Service, operating within the National Council of Churches, had a budget of $41 million dollars. Almost 65 percent came from government sources. In recent decades, church groups have played a major role in the resettlement of refugees from places like Cuba, Hong Kong and especially Vietnam.

But the potential for conflict between government and the churches existed. The purposes of the State Department and those of religious agencies may be, and in fact sometimes were, quite different. That was especially true in the 1980’s, when the Reagan administration tried to subordinate religion to its own purposes in Central America. Rather than Catholic or mainline Protestant agencies, the federal government preferred to assist American evangelical groups, which along with their relief efforts preached a politically conservative gospel that did not challenge the socio-economic injustices fostered by the military regimes in those countries.

The government is explicit about its objectives. According to the current U.S.A.I.D. fact sheet, “Foreign assistance is an important tool for the President and Secretary of State to further America’s interests.” When those interests coincide with the humanitarian goals of religious agencies, good things can still happen for people in need. Today government aid programs overseas could not operate without the help of church groups such as World Vision and Catholic Relief Services. Religiously based organizations employ between 40,000 and 50,000 people abroad—far more than staff government agencies such as the Agency for International Development or the Bureau for Refugee Services.

Bush’s faith-based initiative, therefore, builds on domestic social programs that, in one form or another, have been in existence for two centuries and from the experience of American foreign aid policies of the past half century. As history demonstrates, the American mode of church-state separation has not precluded cooperation between religious groups and governments. The issue is political, not constitutional.

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