This essay was originally published in the American Enterprise, November/December 1995, when Marvin Olasky was a professor at the University of Texas at Austin.
Take the money and lose your soul. Even if you don’t, you’ll still face control. Whatever you do, don’t hide in a hole. Stand up and face the music.
Sounds like a bad country song, but it reflects life in Texas during the 1990s for two poverty-fighting organizations founded on biblical principles.
The first, HOBO—Helping Our Brothers Out—started up in Austin in 1987. Homeless dudes could get some clothes and food while also being exposed to some Bible study and prayer. The program was small and often crude, but it did some good.
In 1989 and 1990 the HOBO board of directors faced a choice: remain a financially-challenged, Bible-based organization or snag big bucks from the feds. As director John Porterfield put it, “We became aware of grants that we could just pick up. We knew there were strings attached, but . . . the money was there in our hands, the only question was whether we should put it in our pockets.”
The answer was not an obvious one for those who had become involved in poverty-fighting because they cared about both body and soul. Board members faced a terrifying choice: supply material help to many, using government funds, or supply spiritual help to a few, and suffer nightmares about those who slipped away.
HOBO leaders chose to take the government money and drop their ministry orientation. Soon, HOBO sported legal services, a health clinic, afternoon Sharon Stone movies for homeless men, and hot and cold showers—everything that could enable an addict or alcoholic to remain homeless.
All that was gone was the pressure to change. At HOBO, God was dead and so was real hope.
An innocent bystander might think that religious groups taking the opposite position—no government grants—would be free of state interference. Not so.
This summer, when Teen Challenge of San Antonio stuck with its policy of treating alcoholics and addicts by teaching them about Christ and in that way filling the holes in their souls, the Texas Commission on Alcohol and Drug Abuse tried to close it down. That’s not real treatment, the state insisted! Turn in your license!
Teen Challenge insisted that it was treating the cause, not just the symptoms, and it provided evidence that such an approach is far more effective than those the state prizes. And Teen Challenge did something more: Instead of giving up or trying to make a quiet deal, it took the advice of Bob Woodson of the National Center for Neighborhood Enterprise and participated in a Woodson-choreographed rally at the Alamo.
The demonstration displayed wonderful testimonies from ex-junkies about how Teen Challenge saved their lives. Woodson went on television to talk about government attack and rally response, and World, the Christian weekly news magazine that I edit, ran a cover story on the controversy. Viewers and readers deluged Texas Governor George W. Bush with calls and letters; more came in when the Wall Street Journal editorial page ran an article explaining the controversy and defending Teen Challenge.
At the end of the month, Governor Bush (facing an uprising from Christian and conservative voters who had helped to elect him), said, “I support faith-based programs. I believe that a conversion to religion-in this case, Christianity . . . by its very nature promotes sobriety. There is logic to what Teen Challenge is doing, and I support it strongly.”
He also agreed to push for new laws and regulations that, at least as far as the state government is concerned, would create an alternative licensing agency run by religious organizations themselves: “Teen Challenge should view itself as a pioneer in how Texas approaches faith-based programs . . . licensing standards have to be different from what they are today.”
This battle is far from over. Governor Bush will need continued pressure to help him withstand the counter-pressures he faces. The governmental social services empire in many states is ready to strike back at the threat posed by faith-based organizations with good track records. Bob Woodson, working with the Institute for Justice, the Progress & Freedom Foundation, and the Christian weekly news magazine World, is planning ways to come to the aid and report the plight of faith-based organizations under attack. Already, there are reports of programs under assault in several states.
The stakes are high. If officials in Texas (and other states) stop pressuring religious organizations to become government lookalikes, and if the federal government changes also, then organizations like HOBO will not have to choose between quality and quantity, and groups like Teen Challenge will not be harassed for going by the Book rather than the state textbook.
The stakes will be even higher next year, if state officials seize the opportunity block grants afford to make significant changes in social service delivery. Effective welfare programs historically are those that have been challenging, personal, and spiritual—all things that programs like Teen Challenge are and that government programs are not. Until now, the tendency has been for religion-based programs like HOBO to become government look-alikes; now, if we can gain a more accurate reading of the first amendment, we could see the reverse.
Will this year’s vaunted welfare reform prove to be a farce, like the reforms of the past? It doesn’t have to be, if good groups sing their country song—“Don’t hide in a hole. Stand up and face the music.”—and taxpayers swell the chorus.
This was originally published in the American Enterprise, November/December 1995, when Marvin Olasky was a professor at the University of Texas at Austin.