March 15, 2001
Vol. 20 No. 12

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    Faith-based programs, in wake of Bush initiative, to be topic at conference

    Peter Schuler
    News Office

    Leading scholars from diverse fields will meet at the Law School Thursday, March 29, and Friday, March 30, for a conference on faith-based initiatives.

    Although the government has long-standing relationships with organizations that support faith-based initiatives, President George W. Bush recently brought this issue to the public’s attention with his push for government funding of more faith-based programs.

    Tracey Meares, Professor in the Law School and Director of the Center for Studies in Criminal Justice, organized the event, which is titled “Conference on Faith-Based Initiatives and Urban Public Policy.”

    The gathering marks the first time that academics in anthropology, divinity, economics, history, political science, law and sociology will meet as a group to discuss initiatives in which churches are engaged, according to Meares.

    Speakers will analyze the kinds of initiatives churches pursue and where such initiatives are taking place. “We will examine the impact of these programs. We also will look at what relationships with other community groups and government entities provide the best conditions for the growth of faith-based programs,” Meares explained. Speakers also will examine the theories behind faith-based initiatives and the historical context in which they developed, including how these religious ideas, initiatives and the law influence one another.

    “My goal at this conference is to start a conversation among academics who have had a long-standing interest in this issue but have not really exchanged ideas in a sustained fashion,” Meares said. “I hope to establish a foundation for a serious interdisciplinary research agenda on faith-based initiatives.”

    Bush has made faith-based initiatives a key element of his public policy agenda. He recently appointed University of Pennsylvania political sci-entist John DiIulio to head a White House office that will coordinate church-based social programs in the United States.

    “It may seem like a new idea, but faith-based programs have been around for a long time,” noted Meares. “The government’s close relationships with the Salvation Army and Catholic Charities, for example, are so well known that people do not even think about them as faith-based initiatives anymore. And more recently, the Clinton administration made a big push to involve churches with the Department of Justice’s ‘Weed and Seed’ program. Though the scale of the new Bush program is surprising, it is made possible because of the many efforts that have been around for years.”

    Meares focuses on the criminal justice system in her research as well as the relationship between law enforcement and poverty. She has studied programs that have changed the social organization of disadvantaged communities in order to resist crime. “I have looked at a particular instance where the Chicago police were involved in helping churches on the West Side work successfully together to organize a prayer vigil against neighborhood crime,” she explained. “My data suggests a connection between that effort and a real potential for crime reduction in that area. But it was not religion per se that created this potential; rather, it was the centrality of churches as institutions in those communities that counted. Faith-based initiatives, however, depend on churches.”

    Meares noted the difficult issues raised by faith-based initiatives. “It may well be that the very success of these initiatives depends so much on their being explicitly religious that these initiatives inevitably violate the constitutional requirement of separation of church and state. If one decides that the best way to deal with problems like crime is for people to ‘get religion,’ that decision could well feed a secular need for religion. Yet, the flip side is that there is a real danger that more government involvement in religion leads to ‘less religious’ religion and, consequently, an impaired capacity of religious institutions to feed the secular need.”