For God and Country

For a South Oak Cliff church considered a model for mixing faith and government, the line between church and state is thin indeeda

Yet the money his church and nonprofit spend on social services provides Evans' community a wide range of aid. The church has adopted an apartment building full of low-income residents. Holland oversees a program that puts high school students into Justice of the Peace Thomas Jones' courtroom where, as part of an instructional session, they serve as judge, jury, prosecutor, and defense lawyer for their peers.

The church's adult education program is extensive and geared to helping the individuals get their financial footing and to assisting struggling middle-income families. If all goes as planned, this year Project Turnaround will offer a budgeting seminar in August, an entrepreneurial skills class in October, and a debt-management course in November.

One weekend late last month, nearly 3,000 people packed into Evans' sprawling red-brick church on Camp Wisdom Road for what was billed as "an investment institute." The two-day affair, overseen by Holland, allowed attendees to register for free classes on real-estate investing, tax planning, investment products, the stock market, and debt management.

Joanna Windham suspects that the toxic mold growing in her Turtle Creek condo is making her and her dogs, Mickey and Dallas, sick.
Joanna Windham suspects that the toxic mold growing in her Turtle Creek condo is making her and her dogs, Mickey and Dallas, sick.
In his second week in office, President Bush signed orders to establish a White House Office of Faith-based and Community Initiatives. John DiIulio (hands clasped) heads the agency and told reporters, "we will work with what is effective."
AP/Wide World Photo
In his second week in office, President Bush signed orders to establish a White House Office of Faith-based and Community Initiatives. John DiIulio (hands clasped) heads the agency and told reporters, "we will work with what is effective."

"Instead of paying to the man, you're paying to you," accountant James Talley told some 70 people who gathered for his class on debt reduction in the choir room at the church. He wanted the group to understand that the exorbitant interest they paid for credit would forever keep them under someone else's thumb. By the frequent nervous giggles during Talley's lively and humorous presentation about danger of debt, the group seemed familiar with the territory he was covering: credit-card troubles. "Debt embarrasses us," Talley told the group. "You know you're in debt if you cannot pay bills on time. God wanted everyone to pay their bills."

To extricate themselves from their debt, they must "honor God first" by giving to the church, said Talley, who handles the accounting for Evans' nonprofit corporation. Debt, he warned them, was the hand of Satan. "When you're supposed to be listening to the sermon, you're thinking about the bills you got to pay," he told the class.

Among its members was Darrell Brown, a 27-year-old merchandise analyst for Zale Corp. With his mutual fund quarterly statement on the chair beside him, Brown flipped attentively to the pages in the booklet Talley had distributed. "There was really a lot of great information given there," Brown said. Not a member of Oak Cliff Bible Fellowship Church yet, Brown, who lives in Garland, learned about the weekend program from the community Web site Dallasblack.com. A single man with no children and a good income, Brown says he doesn't consider himself needy, but he nonetheless found the free program helpful. Talley's references to God and tithing did not disturb him. "I believe the same thing," he said simply.


But what will happen when a program such as Evans' receives government money and doesn't preach to the choir, so to speak?

President Bush's stint as Texas governor might provide some clues. In 1999, the Bush administration approved an $8,000 grant for a job-training program in Brenham. The money helped purchase Bibles, which students were required to read. The program also encouraged participants to accept Jesus Christ as their savior to help prepare themselves for employment. State funding stopped after the nonprofit Texas Civil Rights Project sued, claiming that because no similar secular alternative was available in the immediate geographical area, the government was, in fact, endorsing a religion and coercing those who wanted the benefits of the jobs-training program to join.

Government endorsement of religion is forbidden under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, and modern judges have developed strict guidelines on just what constitutes endorsement. In short, the courts have said government cannot have laws or policies that have the primary effect of promoting religion, support programs that are religious-based without any secular purpose, or excessively intertwine itself with a religious organization. Nor, the courts have ruled, can government appear to endorse a specific religion or coerce others into practicing a certain faith. The test of coercion is whether the government agency directs a formal religious exercise in such as to require participation by those who object.

Marvin Olasky, a 50-year-old University of Texas at Austin journalism professor and author credited with fostering Bush's attitude toward faith-based social service programs, contends the time has come to rethink the whole notion of the separation of church and state.

"If you don't have any mention of God in the school day, that is not neutrality," says Olasky, the son of Jews but himself an evangelical Christian. "A lot of people would have a naked public square. It is not the best thing for this country."

If some Muslim or Jewish child feels isolated because only Christian ministers are able to come to his or her school, that's a small price to pay for the good clergy can do, he says. "You can't turn off the irrigation for some because others don't have it."

The AJC's Stern says the idea of accepting preaching in a public school because no one else will help out is nonsense. "We don't function like that in this country," he says. "There are not some islands among our urban poor without constitutional protections."

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