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By Joseph Loconte

Churches, Charity, and Civil Society

The debate over faith-based social services.

A century ago, Harvard psychologist William James rocked the academic world with his insights into the potency of religious ideals and religious experience. Though a pragmatist and a skeptic, James was deeply moved by the lives of people transformed through a profession of faith. "St. Paul long ago made our ancestors familiar with the idea that every soul is virtually sacred," James wrote in The Varieties of Religious Experience. "The belief in the essential sacredness of every one expresses itself today in all sorts of human customs and reformatory institutions. … The saints, with their extravagance of human tenderness, are the great torch-bearers of this belief, the tip of the wedge, the clearers of the darkness."

It's a sign of the times that James' unremarkable observations about religion have become so contested. Critics have assailed President Bush's "faith-based initiative," for example, not only on church-state grounds but on the assumption that religious organizations don't offer any distinctive resources to people in need. Indeed, many thinkers are agnostic, even cynical, about the link between faith and social stability. In the wake of 9/11, theologians and religious studies scholars such as Charles Kimball (When Religion Becomes Evil) went so far as to label truth claims in the public square as a telltale sign of the corruption of religion. Nevertheless, Bush has forced a national debate over religion and government social policy. "I believe it is in the national interest that government stand side by side with people of faith who work to change lives for the better," he told supporters at a recent White House conference on his initiative. "I'm telling America we need not discriminate against faith-based programs."

Three recent books suggest that the argument over the Bush agenda is far from over. In Of Little Faith: The Politics of George W. Bush's Faith-Based Initiative, political science professors Amy Black, Douglas Koopman, and David Ryden recount the ...

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