Book And Video Reviews

What's God Got To Do With The American Experiment?: Essays on Religion and Politics

by E. J. Dionne (Editor), et. al.
Excellent primer for the new debate

The issue of “charitable choice” and faith-based organizations' eligibility for federal funding for social service programs is a very important topic of discussion in nonprofit and governmental circles, as well as among the general public. This book is a collection of essays from some of the leading thinkers in the field on these issues and others related to religion and public policy in America.

E.J. Dionne is a Senior Fellow in Governmental Studies at the Brookings Institution and a columnist for the Washington Post, and his co-editor, John DiIulio, now serves as the Director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives.

The first essay alone is worth the price of the book and more. “God and the American Experiment -- an Introduction,” co-authored by the editors, eloquently lays out the perspectives of the book's respective contributors and weaves them into a description of the history, the paradoxes, and the ambiguities inherent in the issue of the role and limitations of religious involvement in public life in America. Advocates for, and opponents of, expanding access to government support by private organizations seeking to address social ills are found across all party, religious, and ideological lines.

That last point is important enough to reiterate. Both President Bush and former Vice President Gore campaigned in 2000 on platforms that included expansion of access by faith-based organizations to federal support. Although the initiative is often suspected of being a tactic of Christian conservatives, the two government leaders responsible for its implementation, Mr. DiIulio and Stephen Goldsmith, are a Catholic Democrat and Jewish Republican, respectively. Liberal Senator Paul Wellstone is generally favorable to the concept, while Reverend Pat Robertson of the Christian Coalition is opposed. The book's introduction explores these unusual alliances and perspectives in a coherent and balanced way.

The essays themselves are a mixed bag of scholarship and opinion, of social science and ad hominem advocacy. It also includes some essays which are more tangential to the issue of faith-based initiatives, like the personal memoir from one of the religious counselors that former President Clinton asked to help him in the fall of 1998 during the Monica Lewinsky scandal.

Mr. DiIulio's essay on the history and characteristics of the involvement of black churches in community programs, and his colleague Ram Cnaan's writing on "Our Hidden Safety Net" provide both anecdotal and statistical evidence that faith-based organizations, and especially minority churches in inner-city neighborhoods, are the best source and only source of help for at-risk children who are often forsaken by secular social service programs. Mr. Cnaan is emphatic in his assertion that community organizations cannot pick up the slack left by federal devolution of welfare programs to the states; the states will have to increase programs and funding to fill the void. However, the void would be a chasm without the faith-based providers, and supporting them is supporting those most at-risk, which is the stated goal of almost all involved in social service.

The case against charitable choice is presented by Melissa Rogers, the general counsel at the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs. Her essay asserts that charitable choice is an unconstitutional breaching of the separation of church and state, as well as a danger to the mission of faith-based organizations themselves. The demand for public accountability could jeopardize many of the liberties enjoyed by religious organizations, should they choose to receive government funds.

The debate over the role of religion in American society has achieved decisive status twice before in our history: once at the founding, and once again at the turn of the 20th century. What's God Got To Do With The American Experiment? is evidence of its re-emergence at the turn of the 21st century and a valuable primer for identifying the issues and framing the debate. The issues have emerged in new forms and the battle lines are not what one would expect.