IF ROBERT WOODSON HAD WRITTEN a book like The Triumphs of Joseph in 1978, there would have been widespread outrage. Reviewers would have trashed Woodson’s prescriptions for how to save the black underclass as extremist right-wingery of the most dangerous kind. Black columnists and politicians would have denounced the author personally as a traitor to his race. Woodson would have been invited on Donahue to explain himself, and the ensuing controversy probably would have pushed the book onto the bestseller list.
Twenty years later, it’s not clear how many people will even notice The Triumphs of Joseph, much less think it radical. The debate over what to do about the inner-city poor has shifted so dramatically since the Carter Administration that it’s hard now to remember how revolutionary the private-sector, faith-based solutions to poverty that Woodson espouses (and, to his credit, has long espoused) once sounded. If The Triumphs of Joseph turns out to cause no great ruckus, it will be at least partly because too many people already agree with it.
Still, even current wisdom can be wise, and many of Woodson’s points are worth hearing again. According to Woodson, it isn’t racism that keeps many black neighborhoods poor and violent, but moral decline: “The plagues that are dooming our future are all ultimately spiritual problems,” he writes. “The blame for these tragedies cannot be laid at the feet of white America.” Most people already know this, of course, though not everyone admits it. The assumption behind most government antipoverty programs remains the same as it was in 1966: People are poor because they have suffered discrimination. Efforts to fight poverty by rooting out racism have amounted to a windfall for the black middle class. (Thanks to affirmative action, Woodson notes, as many as six out of ten black college graduates now work for the federal government.) But such programs have done little for the actual poor.
How can the underclass be saved? Through the work of modern-day “Josephs,” Woodson says — grassroots leaders, who, like the biblical Joseph, look to God for deliverance from imprisonment. Woodson cites several contemporary “Josephs” as examples. Most impressive among them is Juan Rivera, a junkie-turned-preacher who helps oversee a series of drug rehabilitation centers in Texas run by a Christian organization called Victory Fellowship. Victory Fellowship is so positively nineteenth century in its approach to drug treatment that it’s almost avant-garde. Addicts who check into a Victory Fellowship home can expect to quit drugs immediately, with no methadone or pharmacotherapy to ease the often turbulent effects of withdrawal. Nor does Victory Fellowship put much faith in the dogmas of contemporary psychology — no primal scream or finger paint therapy here. Instead, former addicts spend much of their time praying, reading the Bible, and conducting Christian ministry in hospitals and around the neighborhood.
The effect of simple, vigorous Christianity on even the most hardened users, Woodson writes, is amazing. Over the past 30 years, Victory Fellowship claims to have helped more than 13,000 addicts quit drugs forever. Most of them, Woodson says, have been transformed from vicious criminals to gentle Christian men and women. As proof, the author recounts how he recently took his family to spend Easter vacation at a Victory Fellowship center in San Antonio. After lunch one afternoon, Woodson watched as the head of the program gave her car keys to three former drug addicts and allowed them to drive her young grandchildren to the movies. Inspired, Woodson decided to allow his own twelve-year-old daughter to go with them. An epiphany followed. “I asked myself how many psychiatrists or therapists or social workers would have such confidence in their treatment that they would entrust their own children to their clients?”
It’s a telling question. Obviously something very good is going on at Victory Fellowship. But what? And how good? Unfortunately, Woodson offers only hints. At one point, for instance, Woodson claims that “many faith-based substance-abuse initiatives” he knows of (presumably including Victory Fellowship) “have success rates as high as 70 and 80 percent.” This is an astounding statistic, since, as Woodson accurately notes, most secular drug treatment programs report cure rates that “hover in the single digits.” Where does this number come from? Woodson doesn’t say.
Nor does he provide a sustained analysis of why the programs he describes work and how well. When it comes time to explain why businesses and taxpayers should throw their support behind grassroots Christian charities, the evidence he presents is largely impressionistic. “To this day,” he writes, “I don’t understand how a faith-based organization can reach into the heart of the most severely damaged individual and transform him. I may not understand it, but I am impressed with the evidence, which is overwhelming.”
Woodson is clearly a thoughtful man, and one wants to believe that the evidence is indeed overwhelming. One also wants to see the evidence. Time and further study may (indeed, probably will) prove Woodson right. But more work is needed. Otherwise, readers are being asked to accept his perceptions on faith alone.
Tucker Carlson is a staff writer with The Weekly Standard.