The 1996 dismantling of the welfare system has engendered the most thorough reassessment concerning the role of the religious community in the delivery of public social services since the New Deal. The dramatic shift from entitlements to block grants has opened up unprecedented opportunities for churches to receive public funds to administer programs such as Welfare to Work.
In the public discourse, the role of faith communities in social welfare, which until recently was mostly the domain of conservative intellectuals and a few other organizations such as Call to Renewal, has now become quite a hot topic. This was reflected in the comments of then-Vice President Al Gore: "Let us put the solution that faith-based organizations are pioneering at the very heart of our national strategy. If you elect me your president, the voices of faith-based organizations will be integral to the policies set forth in my administration."
If the emergence of this theme now represents political capital in Washington, D.C., it is a decidedly mixed blessing for churches. We can take this opportunity to explore the twin dangers that face the churches' response to this historic moment:
Overcommitment. In our enthusiasm to "step into the breach" to serve the abandoned poor, we need to be careful not to over-commit or over-represent the capacity of churches to fill the gap, nor should we absolve government of its public responsibilities.
Undercommitment. Neither should churches undercommit by neglecting the profound needs among former welfare recipients in this time of transition, excusing ourselves from setting up programs because we are underfunded and unprepared.
In attempting to navigate between these two errors, however, a third problem arises that is perhaps the most serious of all. This is the temptation for churches to simply reproduce welfare's "service delivery franchise" without correcting its most odious characteristics.