Faith-based programs and social needs

September 25, 1996|By Robert L. Maginnis

WASHINGTON -- Social costs are outdistancing government's reach. Nationally, crime costs a half-trillion dollars annually and drug-abuse treatment costs the federal government many billions while reaching only a fraction of those in need. Although there are growing numbers of homeless and hungry, as misery rises government outlays fall.

The faith community, which has a God-given responsibility to help, must step in, and government should open the door for its participation.

America has a tradition of relying on the church. It was the church that built most of the nation's hospitals. The church was the prominent player in the civil-rights movement. The church was the original safety net for the homeless, the hungry and the orphaned.

Texas is blazing the trail for the nation by investigating the strange marriage between fiscally-strapped government and faith-based social-service programs. The effort recognizes that the church can succeed where government can't.

Consider the case of Edward Woods from Marshall, Texas, who had a 12-year drug addiction, was twice imprisoned and had tried to commit suicide. Today, he's a totally different person, and he gives credit to his new Christian faith.

If Mr. Woods really has gone straight, Texas will save the social costs normally associated with long-term chronic crime, drug abuse and repeat incarceration. Changing his life cost the taxpayer nothing. A faith-based organization picked up the tab.

Last May 2 Gov. George W. Bush set up a task force to examine how to encourage faith-based programs while avoiding groups like David Koresh's Waco-based Branch Davidians. The state's hidden agenda is saving taxpayer funds by encouraging the faith community to meet more needs.

Regulatory barriers

On July 16, faith-based groups told the task force that state regulations make helping people in crisis difficult. The Texas Commission of Alcohol and Drug Abuse tried to shut down faith-based Victory Fellowship, a rehabilitation program run by former addicts. Fellowship founder Freddie Garcia said, ''We don't use drugs or psychiatrists or any of that, only Bible study.'' While government programs have a cure rate of 10 percent at a cost of hundreds of dollars per day per client, Mr. Garcia's program has a 70 percent success rate.

Some faith-based groups in Texas are wary of government regulators. Natalie Musgrave Ingram with San Antonio's Christian Assistance Ministry said her board is worried about state control. The ministry is a 10-church cooperative that last year fed, clothed, educated and counseled 35,000 people. The group takes no government money. Sylvestor Matthews, a 30-year Texas pastor, warned the task force that government funding of faith-based programs could lead to the licensing of churches.

Task force member Cecil Hawkins, executive director for African American Men of Peace Development in Dallas, said that a state license only ensures control, not quality. He said, ''I've been licensed by God. I don't want to be held accountable to the state for my ministry.'' Another member reminded the task force that Jim Jones who led his followers to mass suicide in Jonestown, Guyana, had five state-approved licenses.

The faith-based community wants to do something about the prison problem. Texas businessman Fred Billings told the Texas task force that the only hope for the criminal is to change him from inside, not to build more jails. Mr. Billings said the state has been throwing money at a problem that is getting too large and complex. He supports the creation of a prison program based on a faith-based approach.

Brazilian model

His prison idea is modeled on a successful 20-year program in Brazil where inmate recidivism is very low. The program is designed to create a correctional environment within the existing criminal-justice system that restores individual inmates to responsible and productive relationships with their communities, families and Creator.

There is evidence that religion makes a difference for prisoners and recidivism. Chuck Colson's Prison Fellowship, in cooperation with the Federal Bureau of Prisons, found in a study that religious former inmates had a significantly lower recidivism rate than non-religious former inmates. Todd Clear writes for the National Council on Crime and Delinquency that religion helps inmates deal with guilt and personal problems, and helps them accept personal responsibility for crimes. Religious inmates are also more likely to become model prisoners than non-religious inmates.

This nation faces serious moral problems. The faith community is equipped to address these problems if government will tame the bureaucrats. The marriage of necessity between government and the faith community, which has existed since George Washington's time, must be rekindled. Our founders were men of faith who knew that the great answers of life come from the church, not from the legislature or the White House.

Robert Maginnis is a senior policy analyst with the Family Research Council.

Pub Date: 9/25/96

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