questions and answers of faith
by Daniel R. Coats
Beginning in the mid-1960s, the United States engaged in an extraordinary effort, ultimately costing trillions of dollars, to centralize in Washington the processes of building houses, providing food, providing welfare, and providing support to those in need. The results were not satisfactory. In fact, the results were very poor. The return on the investment of America's tax dollars was meager indeed. So, in the early 1980s I joined with some others in the U.S. House of Representatives to form a new committee called "the Select Committee on Children, Youth, and Families." The committee examined the problems of children and youth, particularly those of disadvantaged families and those in poverty.
Our goal was to assess the impact of the government's spending programs and the proliferation of these programs over the previous decades. After holding hearings in Washington and traveling the country for regional hearings, most of us became very discouraged. Despite all the tax dollars invested, despite all the bureaucracies built, life was not improving for America 's poor.
One of those regional hearings was held in Macon , Georgia , in the early 1980s. I will never forget it, because it was the defining moment in terms of my thinking on this particular issue. When the thirteenth and final witness--a humble black minister from Macedonia Missionary Church in Waycross , Georgia --came before our committee, I wondered how he even got on the panel. We had already heard from the sociologists of Emory University and all the government experts, who basically said that we needed more money, new programs, and generally more of what we were already doing.
I will never forget what this minister said. "What you in Congress don't seem to understand is that there are limits to what government can do," he explained. "You see, I deal with the youth of Waycross , Georgia , and they're dealing with problems of drug abuse, substance abuse, alcohol abuse, teen pregnancy, juvenile delinquency, violence in the streets, and not much hope for the future." He went on: "You in Washington can put a roof over their head and food on their table, and you can set up a training center for them to give them some skills. You can provide material aid and support, but you cannot touch their hearts and touch their souls. That's not the government's role, and government couldn't do it even if it was its role. That's the role of the community, that's the role of institutions that have the capability of doing this, and particularly that's the role of the faith community."
Before he left the podium, he added, "You have to deal with the whole person, and government can only deal with part of that person. You can deal with body and mind, but you can't deal with spirit and soul. Unless you change the heart of individuals, you're not going to see real rehabilitation and real results."
That commonsense testimony started a process which continued for me for the next fifteen years or so. I decided it made more sense to promote the role of nonprofit, local institutions, particularly faith-based institutions, to reach out, heal people, and bring real change than to keep relying on government solutions.
Since then, a tremendous debate has ta ken place across this country about the role of these institutions. My answer to those who do not think faith-based organizations are effective is simply to take them to the places where faith-based groups are doing their part so that the critics can see the results for themselves.
That describes much of what we did during the Seventh Heartland Symposium recently held in Indianapolis , which brought leading members of Germany 's government, churches, and civil society to America 's heartland for a discussion of the role of government and the faith community in the provision of social services. Yes, we talked about the concept in a meeting room, but we also visited the Wheeler Mission, Oaks Academy, Lutheran Social Services, and some other places in Indianapolis that are making a difference in people's lives, cleaning up neighborhoods, changing lives, offering alternatives and education, and rehabilitating substance abusers.
It is a great story. Indianapolis has become a model--a test bed for the rest of America and the rest of the world. Former mayor Steve Goldsmith's Front Porch Alliance, the Indiana Family Institute, the Central Indiana Community Foundation, and other institutions have done remarkable things to improve the lives of those who live in Indianapolis--and the life of the city itself..
By coming to Indianapolis , our German friends caught a glimpse of some of this transformation.
Articles of Faith
The role of faith in politics is viewed rather differently in Europe as opposed to America . Europeans and Americans have vastly different understandings of the role of faith, particularly the role of faith in public life, and the part that faith should play in policymaking.
Contrary to popular opinion, there is far less separation of church and state in Germany and most parts of Europe than in the United States . Both the Catholic and the Protestant churches in Germany have quasi-official roles in policy matters, ranging from public broadcasting to the delivery of social welfare services. Yet many Europeans instinctively reject the possibility that expressions of religious passion, religious commitment, or life-changing ministries have any place at all in dealing with the problems of the political and social world.
Ironically, in the United States , where institutions and discussions like this flourish, we still have a very strict rule of separation of Church and State that courts are anxious to maintain. However, the discussion of faith, and the use of faith as a healing tool for many of our social ills, is something that is becoming much more widely accepted.
The transatlantic divide over the role of faith in public life has led to some serious misunderstandings in foreign policy. Many Europeans have concluded that President Bush is guided by what they call a "crusader mentality," a desire to Christianize the Muslim world. Surprisingly, a high number of European elites also see the alliance between the United States and Israel as religiously motivated. And many Europeans resent what they see as America 's implied claim to "divine guidance," and they do not like at all the use of the term evil to describe what they see as distant foreign threats.
On the American side, the apparent ambivalence of European leaders about religious faith and the importance of religious freedom leave many Americans cold. Some Americans think that Europe 's secular societies are morally suspect, no longer able to distinguish right from wrong at home or abroad. In addition, some Americans are offended by European commentaries that equate religious fundamentalism in the American heartland with the kind of Islamic fundamentalism that has given rise to mass murder and terrorism.
Clearly, we harbor some suspicions about each other over religious matters. These feelings have worsened the tensions between Europeans and Americans over foreign policy issues, particularly the War on Terrorism. Europeans, I think, need to understand that Americans, for the most part, do not see any contradiction between religious faith and religious diversity. The powerful truth of history passed among Americans is that many of our earliest settlers came here to express their religious passion in an unrestricted way.
In Europe , on the other hand, the relevant truth of history, gleaned from centuries of religiously motivated wars, seems to be that religious passion inevitably leads to violence within and between nations. Therefore, well-meaning Europeans reason that religious passion must be stilled entirely, tightly regulated through various forms of proportional representation in public bodies, or relegated to a background role in people's lives, and especially a background matter in the lives of national leaders.
Tests of Conscience
These differences--in terms of understanding the role of faith in American life and the role of faith in European life--have clearly caused some differences and some divides between us. The differences lead to harsh words on both sides of the Atlantic , some of them directed toward our president. President Bush has been outspo ken about his personal faith, about a seminal experience in his life at the age of forty that changed his focus, altered his behavior, and gave him purpose.
I think this outspokenness is very little understood by Europeans, many of whom seem to think that it is something that is not acceptable, appropriate, nor helpful in the direction of foreign policy. I would like to offer the alternative view--that is, that when President Bush speaks of his prayer life or pays his respects to a higher power, he is simply sharing what to him is a source of great personal strength.
In doing so, he is not mocking the beliefs of others or claiming special moral insight. The Christian faith, like many others, does not narrowly define a course of thinking but instead compels an examination of the conscience and the consequences of an action. People of faith who examine the sincerity of their own intentions can be acutely aware of the fallibility of human reason. As a piece in the London Times put it, "Far from encouraging rationalizations, faith and belief create another hurdle a politician must clear before he acts, subjecting decisions to extra moral tests that have nothing to do with strictly political calculation [and that] can only help to foster responsible leadership."
The faith that the President holds is one that is not uncommon in American politics. President Jimmy Carter, for instance, offered his own explanation and definition of the importance of faith in his life, and nearly every president has defined his beliefs for the American people, before people have gone to the ballot box.
People consider a candidate's beliefs an important aspect of that individual's life. They want to know that politicians and government officials do not limit their decision-making to the intellectual processes of their own mind, but instead that they also acknowledge the presence of a higher authority to which we all are responsible and accountable. Faith poses an additional hurdle of conscience that leaders must overcome when making crucial and difficult decisions, such as sending men and women into combat in realization of the potential consequences for both a defined enemy and innocent victims.
These are questions which I know the President wrestles with daily, and yet he draws strength from his faith. I think that this process is not understood by many in Europe . One of our responsibilities, then, is not only to debate and discuss the role of faith in America , but to articulate better the role that it plays in individual lives and the lives of our leaders. As Heartland Symposium VII reminded us, faith can play a very positive role in solving many of the problems we encounter every day.
This essay is adapted from remarks Ambassador Coats gave at the conclusion of Hudson Institute's Seventh Heartland Symposium, which he chaired. The full report from the Symposium is available at www.hudson.org/pdfs/heartlandreportColumn.pdf