12/12/2011 09:58 am ET

Newt Gingrich Pushes Faith-Based Charities At A Time When Church, State Often Work Together On Welfare

As he stumps and debates on the campaign trail from Iowa to South Carolina, Newt Gingrich has hinted at how his White House would approach faith. In a Gingrich White House, America would battle what he calls a "crisis of secularism" that has degraded the nation's moral character. Freedom of religion would survive, but the nation would need to reclaim its Christian heritage. Government wouldn't solve the problems of the poor, but perhaps community groups and churches could.

The themes are akin to many of those he struck when he last rose to prominence 16 years ago as the thunderous speaker of the House. Then, his major proposal was a dramatic dismantling of government welfare. In its stead would come private charities, many of them faith-based, that he said did a better job of uplifting the neediest.

It was public vs. private, secular vs. religious.

But while Gingrich, a Southern Baptist-turned-Catholic who has arguably run one of the most religious campaigns to become the Republican presidential nominee, is revisiting familiar ground, such rhetoric may run up against the reality of his legislative accomplishments. In part because of Gingrich's own efforts, there is increasing rapprochement between church and state in America.

The promotion of religious groups and faith-based services is now built into the highest levels of government with the White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships. The country, too, has changed how it approaches faith, with polls showing that most Americans believe religion plays a positive role in charity efforts.

As House speaker, Gingrich was hailed for leading Congress to enact a major welfare reform law. What's less known is that the legislation included a historic provision allowing faith-based groups to win government contracts to run social service programs, from job training and tutoring to rehabilitation and gang prevention.

Large nonprofit organizations that are affiliated with religion but don't preach it, such as Catholic Charities and Jewish Family Services, had long vied for public dollars. The welfare overhaul allowed individual houses of worship and small religious organizations that also did social work to apply for funds as well. Religious groups were slow to take advantage of that part of the welfare law, which got lost amid 251 pages of legalese, but it inspired similar provisions in laws dealing with poverty and substance abuse reduction.

Such provisions also helped lay the groundwork for President George W. Bush's Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, which was created in 2001 to encourage religious groups to vie for federal dollars, and the similarly named office under President Barack Obama.

Today, faith-based social service programs win more than $2 billion in competitive federal funds per year, according to the most recent statistics from the Bush White House (the Obama administration does not tally faith-based funding totals). That's up exponentially from when Gingrich became House speaker.

At the onset of his tenure as speaker, Gingrich also convened high-profile religious leaders and lawmakers in Washington to tout community alternatives to government programs addressing everything from unemployment to alcoholism. He's receiving a more mixed reception from the faith-based grassroots today.

"Newt is right on some things and wrong on others. It's a question of degree and emphasis," says the Rev. Eugene Rivers, founder of Boston's Ella J. Baker House, a nonprofit that once graced the pages of national magazines and newspapers for an innovative program pairing at-risk youth with former gang members. The program was credited for its role in the "Boston miracle," a dramatic drop in the city's homicides in the '90s.

"Is there a lot of money wasted on government programs that do not reduce crime or alleviate poverty? Absolutely," says Rivers, one of several black leaders whom then-Speaker Gingrich consulted on anti-poverty and anti-violence initiatives. Rivers is now an Obama supporter.

On the poor, "some of [Gingrich's] remarks are unfortunate, but he also needs a chance to explain himself. ... Everything is so politicized and partisan," says Rivers, adding that he focuses on "the reality on the ground."

Gingrich is again showing his distaste for how the government tends to the most vulnerable Americans. His suggestions that many poor children, particularly those who live in public housing, lack a work ethic and that child labor laws are "truly stupid" have generated tremendous backlash. They are not much different from his mid-'90s attacks on welfare, when he said the program was responsible for creating an underclass that was "illiterate, ignorant and violent."

Although a Gingrich spokesman did not reply to a request for comment for this article, Gingrich himself doesn't shy from discussing the powerful role he believes religion has to play in fixing the nation's social and economic ills. At a recent forum in Iowa, he said the nation "shouldn't be surprised at all the problems we have" because it has been "driving God out of public life."

Yet, at least in the area of faith-based groups' ties to government, the relationship has prospered. Funding data from the Bush administration shows that religious charities received 10.8 percent of the $20.4 billion in federal dollars available in 2007. Experts believe the numbers have been similarly high during the Obama administration.

Such a proliferation of church-state partnerships can be traced back to the efforts of Gingrich and the Republican Party in the 1990s.

"If you went to the mid-'90s and before, the government strongly preferred to give grants and work with organizations that were entirely secular. Enterprises that were not just faith-affiliated but that were faith-based were excluded entirely," says Ira Lupu, a law professor at Georgetown University who specializes in religion's role in government.

To be sure, the vast majority of social service work in the nation today is not faith-based, and a significant portion of social workers believe secular outreach is more effective than religious outreach. Even for some on the religious side, the partnership between government and religion has gone too far.

"It doesn't take billions and billions of dollars to fix people," says Bob Cote, the founder of Denver-based Step 13, one of the nation's most successful addiction rehabilitation programs. Gingrich frequently praised Cote in the '90s for his efficient, strict operation that housed 100 men and turned many of them into successful workers with no government help and a little dose of faith. The organization now works with 140 men and a $700,000 donor-funded annual budget.

"The churches are the answer. They need to get back to doing what they used to do, showing love. That's where they are lacking. We are training poor people to be like stray pets. Here is a bowl of food, pat 'em on the head, they come back a little later," says Cote.

Public support for the government's involvement with faith-based initiatives has slightly declined in recent years. In a 2009 survey, the Pew Forum found that 69 percent of Americans said they support letting religious groups apply for government funds for social services. That was down 8 percentage points from 2001, when Bush first established a White House faith-based office. At the same time, the survey also found that when asked whether religious organizations, nonreligious organizations or the government did the best job of providing for the needy, a plurality of 37 percent chose religious organizations. That percentage was the same in 2001. Support for faith-based initiatives was highest for Christian groups, slightly less for Jewish groups and significantly less for Muslim groups.

Gingrich isn't the only Republican candidate to encourage faith-based social services. While governor of Massachusetts, Mitt Romney established an office to help the state's religious organizations compete for federal funds. Texas Rep. Ron Paul has criticized government funding of faith-based programs because "truly independent religious institutions are critical to a free society." And as a senator from Pennsylvania, Rick Santorum was active in shaping the welfare overhaul that initially opened up federal funding for religious groups.

Yet it was Gingrich who largely took credit for changes to the welfare system -- and faced criticism for its effects on the needy.

In the mid-'90s, a group of Christian clergy were arrested at the Capitol after protesting welfare cuts, on which they said many poor communities had too little input and for which Christian groups were expected to pick up the slack. The group, led by the Rev. Jim Wallis of Sojourners, a progressive evangelical magazine and Christian coalition, also criticized Democrats for relying too much on government programs and being wary of faith-based charity efforts.

Today, Wallis, a prominent Washington activist, believes Gingrich "needs to do more to really be a compassionate conservative."

"It will take people who are willing to say, 'Let's figure this out, how each of us can do what we do best,'" Wallis says. "Most people do not want big government or more government. ... They want to see a collaborative, cooperative relationship between the government, people and society."