When did the conversation of conservatives in America shift predominantly to the realm of politics, to the exclusion of virtually everything else? What was once a rich philosophy of ideas imbedded in imaginative literature, philosophy, history and theology has thinned out to a one-note samba played on a political tin drum. Both political parties have reduced their vision to the material realm, where the only disagreement is over whether the government should be vast and bankrupt now or large and bankrupt soon. The assumption is that the government must provide all significant solutions. Is politics really the main engine that drives history?

Seeking Secular Salvation

Deep beneath this shift toward the political realm was a philosophical drift that began in an undercurrent early in the 13th century. Eric Voegelin, one of the most astute critics of modernity, argued that the modern age has been characterized by the emergence of politics as a secular means of salvation. He traces the unraveling of order back to Joachim of Flora, a medieval mystic who depicted man’s history in three ascending ages, which would bring about the final age of perfection. According to Voegelin, Fiore “and his successors replaced faith in God with faith in man’s ability to build heaven on earth. The new earthly faith depended upon the fallacious notion that history itself has a purpose: the achievement of human perfection. Salvation was to be sought in this world, through the pursuit of temporal achievements aimed at making material the transcendent world of God.” [1] Hobbes and Rousseau took the next steps, claiming that the political order could provide the means to rescue man from his fallen state and remake his image.

The American Founders tethered our limited government to the Roman vision of a republic and the limitation of power, believing that man’s nature is flawed by sin. But the competing vision of man promising secular salvation that had flourished in the French Revolution took a cunning twist at the end of the 19th century in America through the Social Universalists. Professor Richard Ely urged economists and theologians to converge in support of “coercive philanthropy” that he saw as the “duty of government” to “establish among us true cities of God.” [2] William G. Fremantle expounded this approach, lifting up the “Nation as the Church, its rulers as ministers of Christ, its whole body as a Christian brotherhood, …material interests as Sacraments, its progressive development, especially in raising the weak, as the fullest service rendered on earth to God, the nearest thing as yet within our reach to the kingdom of heaven.”[3] Marx’s language in the Communist Manifesto makes similar claims using religious language for his inverted religion.

This is a perversion of the natural order. The government can never bring about the kingdom of heaven. The political realm is incapable of inculcating virtue. Law can draw the dividing line between human beings and proscribe consequences for infractions that violate a person or their property. But the realm of politics is incapable of directly influencing the human heart to desire good or avoid evil. Government can provide boundaries for human action and can guarantee rights, but it cannot write its laws in the hearts of its citizens. Government can protect the freedom for people to seek their own good, but it cannot mandate the appetite to seek the highest good. These are tasks that must remain squarely in the private sector.

It is an odd paradox, but the success of America depends on these private virtues, and the theological truths that shape them, for its very existence. But it is outside the realm of the government to provide the character formation that is necessary for the survival of the republic. This is what people of faith in the private sector must do. That which is essential for the survival of our civic order must be provided in the private realm, in individuals and families, in churches and civic organizations, and through the armies of compassion, the people I call “street saints.” There are thousands of houses of worship, faith-based organizations, schools, and community associations that educate, nurture, and care for people, shaping their hearts and souls. It is crucial that they succeed in planting the seeds of virtue.

Renewers in America are now seeking appropriate ways to foster the “fruits of liberty” –forbearance, love, and charity – in a way that is consistent with the overarching principles of the country. People of faith are necessary to instill the values and convictions that make people responsible individuals. Without faith, virtue cannot be sustained. We walk in this precarious balancing act, suspended in the tension between church and state, with a push to eradicate all public traces of faith, while the nation depends on the vibrancy of faith for its survival. And meanwhile even the private sector capacity is marginalized by conservatives who have focused on the political to the exclusion of almost everything else.

The Ambiguous Embrace of Government

What then is the relationship between faith and the public square in America? Although the founders clearly proclaimed faith to be essential in fostering virtue, and virtue to be necessary for the functioning of the republic, the linkage has been severed today. For 350 years from the arrival of the earliest settlers, Americans acknowledged their dependence on God’s grace for the human governing institutions to function. Only in the past 50 years has the dependency of the state on the fruits of faith been called into question.

Jefferson’s old metaphor of a “wall of separation between church and state” lay dormant in his letter of 1803, with no legal significance or binding power whatsoever. It suddenly appeared in an opinion of the Supreme Court in 1947. Justice Hugo Black wrote, “The First Amendment has erected ‘a wall between church and state’…. That wall must be kept high and impregnable. We could not approve the slightest breach.” [4] With this opinion, Jefferson’s words in private correspondence assumed a power that the founding generation and Jefferson himself never intended.[5] The following year, the Supreme Court again quoted this metaphor, blithely imbuing it with Constitutional power. Ever since, this metaphor has defined church-state jurisprudence. A spate of court decisions have expanded the concept to roll back manifestations of faith in public life in myriad ways, to the point that Chief Justice Rehnquist has noted that the Court “bristles with hostility to all things religious in public life.” [6] As Daniel Dreisbach has pointed out, the metaphor of a wall is troublesome because it is inaccurate. A wall blocks in both directions. The First Amendment as formulated by the founders meant to restrain Congress from intruding on the religious domain, not to evict religion from the public ethic. Dreisbach underscores “the widespread assumption of the age that republican government and civic virtue were dependent on a moral people and that morals could be nurtured only by the Christian religion.” He claims, “The ‘high and impregnable’ wall constructed by the modern Court” has been used to “silence the religious voice in the public marketplace of ideas and to segregate faith communities behind a restrictive barrier.” [7]

We see now court orders and a secular feeding frenzy that aims to sanitize the public square from all traces of religion, particularly if it’s Christian. There have been a few decisions bucking that trend, which have affirmed voluntary religious clubs in schools or universities if they are student led and initiated; have permitted public school teachers to do remedial classes in private faith-centered schools; and have procured computers and library books for such schools.[8] But these are the rare exceptions.

Faith-based organizations are providing results with clear civic value. When I first wrote about these groups, it was more as an observer, but I have been in the trenches myself for 14 years now. One of the organizations I founded is the WorkFaith Connection, which has graduated 1196 people in just over four years, most of whom are transitioning out of a history of drug addiction, prison, homelessness or chronic unemployment. Today they are working for 444 employers throughout Houston, despite the economy and their troubled past, and they are making a new life, with God’s help. The civic results are expressed in decreased recidivism of criminal offenders, reduced drug addiction, successful transition from welfare to work, decreased disciplinary infractions of at-risk youth, and reunited families. These are the tangible fruits of faith, and they are improving the quality of life for citizens of our city and state.

The WorkFaith Connection has not applied for government funding because accepting it would change the nature of what we do. There are clear restrictions on the kinds of activities the federal government may fund. The rules of engagement since the “Charitable Choice” provisions of the welfare reform in 1996 dictate that federal funds may not be used for any work that includes any religious instruction. Our mission is to help people in transition find not only a new job, but a new life, through faith. At the WorkFaith Connection, the unambiguous strengthening of our graduates in their faith has helped them stabilize their lives with remarkable success. They are breaking the cycle of drugs, prison and poverty.

Elliott’s Law

If faith-based groups receive significant federal funding, it is a Faustian bargain. Overt faith – preaching, teaching, evangelizing – must be sanitized from the portions of programs that receive federal dollars.[9] What remains is the delivery of social services, which undoubtedly have value, but can become decoupled from their spiritual origin. Faith-based organizations that receive a significant portion of their budget from federal funding run the risk of a new application of Lord Acton’s famous maxim on the corrupting tendencies of power (let’s call it Elliott’s law): “Federal funding tends to secularize, and absolute federal funding secularizes absolutely.”

By definition, faith-based organizations exist because of faith. But if they are funded fully by the federal government, they may not teach the source of their faith.[10] If you take the faith out of faith-based organizations, they do not differ from their secular counterparts, and lose the dynamism that makes them effective. Part of the power of people of faith walking into prisons and schools as volunteers comes from the fact that we are not agents of the government, but private citizens who come because we want to be vessels of love. The work of people of faith is too important for the soul of the nation for it to be neutered or diluted.

What We Need is a Change of Heart

The most important question is not what the government can do. The question is how we in the private sector can respond. Has everyone forgotten that the private sector clothed, fed, educated and provided medical care for Americans for nearly all of our history? Communities have been very effective in providing solutions for neighbors who know one another. Foundations, corporations, and individuals are all free to give in their own communities. Corporations and some foundations behave as if they were prohibited from making grants to faith-based work, although there are no constitutional constraints. If these groups are providing work with a clear civic value, they are worthy of support. People of faith can do a great deal to revitalize a rapidly decaying culture from the inside out. The heavy lifting has to be done by individual people who act because of their faith, and are at liberty to give an account of the source of their hope.

The glue that held our society together for as long as it flourished was found in personal, face-to-face relationships. This is where civil society grows. To the extent that we have lost these face-to-face relationships to care for people in need, we have lost an important part of what made America personal, warm, even luminescent. We need to nurture this part of the American soul. Only if we can re-ignite a passion for vibrant personal faith, which produces virtue manifested in action, can we maintain the fragile order that has been bequeathed to us by our forefathers. We need to quicken the spiritual life of lukewarm believers, and light a fire to mobilize the laity to care for individuals in our own community. The reasons for doing this are compelling. But what we need is a change of heart.

We hold in our own hands the threads of our tattered civil society. Reweaving the threads of relationship through face-to-face encounters in our own communities can be a joyous and fulfilling engagement. The antidote to so much of the modern malady is right there, contained in the fragile string of relationship. Abandoned children in the inner city, blasé Baby Boomers, isolated elderly, and disenchanted Gen-Xers are all yearning for a better way of living. And yet so few people are connecting the threads.

Until our culture demonstrates the virtue of agape, it will not move to help its forgotten. Until we do so as individuals, we will never know the joy that comes in serving others. The American culture has an opportunity now for renewal through its people of faith. We are being called to care for one another with love. We are being called to live out our virtue in service. The American soul has withered, and awaits an infusion of the lifeblood of love. Whether or not we respond may determine the very survival of our civilization. “Just look at history,” Peter Kreeft warns. “Each civilization has survived and thrived in proportion to its virtue. It has decayed when its virtue decayed. Israel, Greece, Rome and the modern West are examples.” [11]

America inherited such a rich patrimony, spanning more than twenty centuries intellectually and spiritually. We have had the benefit of understanding the mind and spirit and we have had the gift of freedom to develop our capabilities. We once had a remarkable outpouring of generosity in charity and the warmth of human engagement through compassion on our streets. Trust and cooperation flourished in a way that we almost took for granted, but that surprised visitors and newcomers from other shores. We had a nation that was not only strong, but gentle and good. But the soul of America is in peril now.

The question is whether we will heed the call to renew America’s soul.

For other essays in this series, click here and here.

Adapted from Street Saints: Renewing America’s Cities (Templeton Foundation Press, 2004). 

The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.


1. Eric Voegelin, The New Science of Politics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1952), p. 110.
2. Richard Ely, Social Aspects of Christianity (New York: T.Y. Crowell, 1889), pp. 92, 77; quoted in Olasky, p. 121.
3. William G. Fremantle, The World as the Subject of Redemption (New York: Longmans, Green, 1895 second edition) p. 281. Quoted in Marvin Olasky, The Tragedy of American Compassion, (Washington D.C.: Regnery Publishing, Inc., 1992) p. 128.
4. Everson v. Board of Education, 330 U.S. 1.
5. See Daniel L. Dreisbach, Thomas Jefferson and the Wall of Separation Between Church and State, 2002.
6. Doe v. Santa Fe Independent School District, (2000).
7. Daniel L. Dreisbach, “How Thomas Jefferson’s ‘Wall of Separation’ Redefined Church-State Law and Policy,” paper presented to the Philadelphia Society, October 4, 2003.
8. See Widmar v. Vincent, 454 U.S. 263 (1981), Westside Community Schools V. Mergens, 496 U.S. 226 (1990), Capitol Square Review Board v. Pinette, 515 U.S. 753 (1995), Rosenberger v. Rector, 515 U.S. 819 (1995), Agostini v. Felton, 521 U.S. 203 (1997), and Mitchell v. Helms, 120 Supreme Court Reporter 2530 (2000).
9. The rights of faith-based providers to wear religious garb or have religious symbols on the wall have been preserved, as has the right to hire in accordance with their faith convictions, as guaranteed by the Civil Rights Act. However, these rights are under fire from critics of the Faith-Based Initiative. Manifestations of faith outside the federally funded portion of the work are permitted, as is worship, but federal funds may not be co-mingled for these activities. The provision of services may not be predicated upon participation in such activities. And alternative sources of service must be available for participants who do not want to be handled by a faith-based provider.
10. The purists insist any government funding would potentially corrupt the faith mission. In practice, there are FBOs that have received such funds and remained true to their purpose. The key seems to be the clarity of the leadership in maintaining the faith character through a commitment to avoid “mission creep” that shifts the goals to follow funding streams. Limiting the proportion of the budget from government sources helps to maintain both integrity and independence.
11. Kreeft, Back to Virtue, p. 193.

The featured image is “The Good Samaritan” by David Teniers the Younger, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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