In the Zone: Geoffrey Canada Is Changing the Odds in Harlem

In the Zone: Geoffrey Canada Is Changing the Odds in Harlem

SCHOOL REFORMER: Harlem Children’s Zone founder Geoffrey Canada believes under-resourced communities, where the odds are stacked against kids, must be changed to give their young people the same shot at success as kids in more privileged communities. (Photo: Tom Fitzsimmons/Center for Public Leadership/Wikipedia)

“There are many places in our nation that we have allowed to become areas of hopelessness,” said educator and activist Geoffrey Canada last month at the Willow Creek Global Leadership Summit. “Despair rules and young people who grow up there have no way of knowing right from wrong.”

Canada, the founder and CEO of the Harlem Children’s Zone, told Willow Creek ministry leader Nancy Beach that youth become “contaminated” with negative values and principles that must be counteracted. It’s a message he’s been proclaiming in New York and now around the nation for more than twenty years.

Perhaps you’ve seen Canada discussing education on television. He was prominently featured in the controversial 2010 documentary Waiting for Superman, which took a hard look at the tenuous condition of American public education. These days when any serious conversation about public schools turns toward the topic of real solutions, it’s difficult not to reference Canada’s name and work.

In inner cities where overcoming the odds is the only way for children to achieve success, Canada contends that the odds need to be changed. This conviction, coupled with a waiting list for the after-school and summer youth programs Canada directed through the mid-1990s, convinced him to scrap a model social services organization in favor of what The New York Times Magazine calls “one of the biggest social experiments of our time.”

As we begin a new school year, and our nation’s system of public education continues to falter, it’s worth taking a look at Geoffrey Canada’s efforts as a case study on what might be possible if we’re willing to work hard, think innovatively, and put our children first.

The Great Experiment

Founded in 1997 as a corporate reorganization of the Harlem-based Rheedlen Centers, which ran various after-school, violence-prevention, and summer youth programs for 500 children with a $3 million annual budget, Harlem Children’s Zone has embraced a mission to prove that poor children, especially poor black children, can succeed in big numbers. Success means good reading scores, grades, and graduation rates for average students, not just the smartest or most motivated or the ones with involved parents.

The catalyst for Canada’s changed approach was a perpetual waiting list at Rheedlen. Canada became dissatisfied that no matter how many children his centers served, their services merely treated symptoms of far deeper social ills for hundreds of children while thousands went unattended every day.

He was also frustrated with an “apartheid” type of school district where kids living below 96th Street were super achievers and kids above 96th Street chronically underperformed. Grappling with the disparity, he wondered whether it’s even possible to transform the system so that success might become the norm for Harlem too.

INVESTING IN LIVES: Canada (left) works with students in a Harlem Children’s Zone classroom. “We can’t afford to lose another generation,” he says.

Fueled by the belief that individual children will do better if the children around them are doing better, Canada set out to prove that success can indeed become normalized. Unapologetically, HCZ is a social experiment designed to amass evidence that demonstrates how to equalize the playing field so that poor children perform on the same level as middle-class children. Canada foresees a day when, “This isn’t an abstract conversation anymore. If you want poor children to do as well as middle-class children,” to become “typical Americans” who can compete for jobs, “we now know how to do it.”

According to the Times Magazine, “If [Canada is] right, the services he will provide will cost about $1,400 a year per student, on top of existing public-school funds. The country will finally know what the real price tag is for poor children to succeed.”

In 2005, U.S. News & World Report described Canada as having “the street walk and Harvard talk.” That combination generates enough credibility to be given a legitimate shot at making his experiment work.

Holistic Programming, Tightly Networked

Geoffrey Canada’s political philosophy is both liberal and conservative, meaning he believes the economy systematically disfavors poor people no matter how hard they work, but he also believes poor parents need to raise their children better. His solution is a holistic approach that invests in traditional services such as public schools, day care, and after-school programs to remedy structural inequities, while also teaching parenting and life skills to enhance personal responsibility.

None of the Zone’s programs, by themselves, is unique. What is unique is how they create an interlocking web of services designed to nurture poor children in a particular neighborhood from birth through college. The Cleveland Plain Dealer describes HCZ’s distinctive this way: “The Zone is a network of tightly connected initiatives. … What sets them apart is the unifying vision Canada has imposed, creating a single, womb-through-college cocoon for thousands of poor kids … and fierce determination to achieve measurable outcomes.”

Each individual initiative fits into an expansive strategy that meets different needs differently. There’s no one right, cookie-cutter formulation for what every individual child needs. Instead, HCZ offers a panoply of services, including:

• Harlem Gems, a computer-based, pre-kindergarten program teaching Hooked on Phonics

• Employment and Technology Center

• TRUCE after-school program for teens

• Family Support Center and foster care alternatives

• Baby College co-ed class for pregnant parents

• Promise Academy charter school

All of HCZ’s programs are geographically located within a 100-block area of Central Harlem, a neighborhood characterized by a poverty rate of nearly 50 percent and foster-care placement rates among the highest in New York City. The 10,000 children living within this community Canada describes as “my kids,” and his goal for them is “fairness … just give my kids a fair shot.” Once they have completed college, “they’re as equal as anybody else, and they’ll be able to fend for themselves.”

Four Pillars

Harlem Children’s Zone rests its various program initiatives on four pillars.

1. Rebuild the community from within by developing indigenous leaders who already live in the neighborhood. “Mostly we found that to change a block, you had to get between 10 and 20 percent of the people engaged.” Hope spreads and negative elements move elsewhere.

2. Start early and never stop. Provide services from before birth through prenatal parenting classes and continuing through the completion of college. “Our theory is you never let the kids get behind in the first place.”

3. Think and plan big. Overwhelm the negative with positive influences. Make success and hard work normative.

4. Evaluate relentlessly. HCZ holds 1,300 full and part-time employees accountable to predetermined results. “If you took a salary to deliver an outcome and you didn’t deliver the outcome, you can’t stay here in the organization.” All programs have ten-year business plans with goals, targets, and timetables.

Measurable Results

Canada asks no less than 15 years from stakeholders to demonstrate that HCZ’s approach actually works, calling quick fixes to entrenched social problems “pipe dreams.” In exchange, he promises a rigorous reporting and evaluation methodology to track progress and identify program weaknesses.

His management style runs the non-profit like a business and treats philanthropists like venture capitalists. The HCZ business plan focuses on business-oriented ideas like “market-penetration targets” and “new information technology applications” and a “performance-tracking system.”

The Zone regards clients as “customers” and outreach as “marketing.” Administrative staffers wear suits; every meeting starts on time; and reports, budgets, and evaluations flow constantly.

HCZ focuses its energies and resources on what it can control — namely excellent supportive services for children — and not issues beyond their control such as adult marriages and underemployment. Then it recruits relentlessly to register its target market — the most “at-risk” youths in the neighborhood — through door knocking, fliers, sign-ups, raffles, prizes, and give-a-ways (even “bribes”); and promises to deliver excellent results. For example, HCZ called its first charter school Promise Academy because, “We are making a promise to all of our parents. If your child is in our school, we will guarantee that child succeeds. There will be no excuses. … If you work with us as parents, we are going to do everything — and I mean everything — to see that your child gets a good education.”

HCZ’s educational philosophy emphasizes both testing and accountability. They work within the existing public school system while simultaneously opting-out by starting two charter schools. HCZ’s charter schools operate a longer school day, from 8 a.m. – 4 p.m., with supplementary after-school programs until 6 p.m.; and their academic years extend into July. HCZ has met resistance from the Teachers Union because, even though charter school teachers get paid more than union teachers, they work longer hours, a full 12 months a year, and without the possibility of tenure.

The Zone supplements its own service offerings by partnering with parents, residents, teachers, and other community stakeholders to create a safe, nurturing environment that extends beyond its programs. By collaborating with churches, parks, local businesses, and schools, HCZ advocates for education reform, economic development, and crime reductions while proactively rebuilding the neighborhood.

The Challenge of Fatherlessness

The issue of fatherlessness is deeply personal for Canada, both as a central subplot in his own “against the odds” story and as a driving factor in the culture the Zone seeks to overcome. Canada tackles the subject specifically in one of his books, Reaching up for Manhood: Transforming the Lives of Boys in America (Beacon Press 1998).

Raised in the South Bronx by a single mom with four children, Canada’s father left when Canada was only 4. His mother supported them through a combination of odd jobs, welfare, and food donations. He found solace, and trouble, in the streets as a teenager — drinking, smoking pot, and resolving conflicts with his fists. But mom’s work ethic rubbed off, as he secured a factory job after school and ultimately earned a scholarship to attend Bowdoin College, where he majored in psychology and sociology. He then went on to earn a master’s in education from Harvard.

Canada speaks with conviction about the need to “father the fatherless” in part due to his own experience, but also because of the degree to which the absence of fathers has ravaged his community. “It is so much more dangerous for boys today because there aren’t any role models around for them. There’s some 15-year-old telling a 12-year-old what it means to be a man, and these children are really growing up under so much stress.”

Compounding matters is a cultural environment that “preaches anarchy.” Despite a rich tradition within the African American community of music that “always tried to lead us to the light … [and] get us through the tough times,” the current generation of hip-hop stars espouse “a message that is leading us to destruction. The message is, ‘Go out and do things that will destroy you, that will get you locked up in jail, that will ruin your life, that will ruin your relationships, that will estrange you from your kids.’ That’s what this music is preaching. And we’ve never had any music like that in our history before. … The street isn’t driving the music anymore. The music is driving the street.”

The two-fold solution, Canada contends, begins by reconnecting young boys to men in meaningful, long-term relationships that he calls, “loving men and not just mentors.” Mentors are needed, “but mentors do not replace a responsible adult who loves you, who disciplines you, who’s there when you’re afraid at night, who’s there to really talk to you about school and work. That’s what young boys need, and we have to figure out a way to get uncles and cousins and other folks re-involved with these young people for long periods of time so these boys have role models on what it means to be a man.”

For kids who lack a father’s love, these “re-involved” adults must “not only give them the good, solid, love, and support they need, but the tough love that says to them that you’re going to be held responsible, but I’m going to help you, I’m going to hold your hand; I’m going to make sure that when you are crying, there’s someone wiping those tears out of your eyes, picking you up and saying you can do it, try again.”

Only then will boys get messages contradicting pop and street culture values about sex, alcohol, tobacco, clothing, sneakers, and other “stuff that means absolutely nothing when we really look at what it means to be a caring, responsible father, a real responsible adult in today’s society.” What really matters are values like working hard, saving money, and investing in education. There are no “quick and easy” shortcuts, just hard work over a long time modeled for boys by grown men who are willing to take them by the hand and live life together.

The second piece of the strategy is teaching boys necessary skills to care and nurture children as fathers. Canada argues that if a dad is uninvolved in a child’s first three months, meaning not directly supporting, interacting, and bonding with the child, then that father is able to leave without feeling like his abandonment of the child is a big deal. But a boy who hasn’t had a fathering role model lacks basic skills for bonding with children. Worse, they have to overcome street culture biases by insisting that poor boys and girls refrain from exploitative sexual relationships, and redefining manhood to include nurturing as well as providing. To this end, HCZ’s Baby College intentionally works with both pregnant mothers and fathers.

Challenges to Replication

VISION CASTING: Canada during his interview at the Willow Creek Global Leadership Summit in August.

Over the years, many groups and individuals have studied Geoffrey Canada’s work with the intention of duplicating it in their own cities. But Canada identifies three main challenges to replicating the Harlem Children’s Zone model in other communities. The first, and most fundamental, is finding the right leadership. An appropriate leader is someone whom the community and donors are going to hold accountable while giving that person the authority to hold others accountable. “This won’t work with a collaborative of equal partners.”

Second, groups and individuals must have the discipline and resolve to stay true to the four pillars, including: empowering indigenous leadership to own the transformation process; embracing large and scalable strategies; adopting a long-term, comprehensive, birth through college service commitment; and evaluating and improving performance constantly.

Finally, group leaders must mobilize and sustain the commitment of staff, volunteers, community stakeholders, funders, and residents.

Staying the Course

Back at Willow Creek, Nancy Beach engaged Canada in a wide-ranging conversation on faith and leadership that offers additional insight into his way of thinking and the things that have made him successful.

“I grew up in the ’60s and lost faith in the church because the church wasn’t making a difference in the world around me,” he said. But his grandmother taught him a profound lesson. “She told me, ‘It’s easy to have faith when everything is going great, but the real test of faith is when you’re faced with something where only your faith will keep you believing in God.’”

It’s evident that Canada has taken his grandmother’s words to heart as he goes about the work of transforming education in America. “I’ve never lost this sense that we can test it, but in the end if you have faith, it will pull you through anything.”

Sources

+ Harlem Children’s Zone website: www.hcz.org
+ Sam Fulwood III, Bob Paynter and Sandra Livingston, “Central Harlem program combines leadership, commitment to rebuild a community,” Cleveland Plain Dealer (Dec. 13, 2007)
+ Chester Higgins, Jr., “Vision,” New York Times (June 7, 2006)
+ Anderson Cooper, “Stop Snitching,” 60 Minutes (April 22, 2007)
+ Deborah A. Pines, “America’s Best Leaders: Thriving in the Zone,” US News & World Report (Oct. 31, 2005)
+ Paul Tough, “The Harlem Project,” New York Times Magazine (June 20, 2004)
+ Transcript, “Moving Toward Manhood,” The News Hour with Jim Lehrer (Jan. 20, 1998)
+ Felicia Lee, “Being a Man and a Father Is Being There,” New York Times (June 18, 1995)

‘Obamacare’ Prevails: Supreme Court Upholds Healthcare Law

‘Obamacare’ Prevails: Supreme Court Upholds Healthcare Law

In a 5-4 vote, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act today, including the controversial individual mandate that requires all Americans to buy health insurance beginning in 2014. However, the ruling limited the federal government’s power to punish states for not expanding Medicaid coverage, as the ACA required.

“The Court did not sustain it as a command for Americans to buy insurance, but as a tax if they don’t. That is the way Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr., was willing to vote for it, and his view prevailed. The other Justices split 4-4, with four wanting to uphold it as a mandate, and four opposed to it in any form,” Lyle Denniston, the 81-year-old reporter, wrote on SCOTUS blog today.

The immediate sense is that this is a major victory for President Barack Obama and the signature legislation from his first term in office. “Whatever the politics,” the president said after the ruling, “today’s decision was a victory for people all over this country whose lives will be more secure because of this law and the Supreme Court’s decision to uphold it.”

But the decision also was an indication that the Supreme Court perhaps isn’t as predictably partisan as many believed prior to the announcement. Breaking with the court’s other conservative justices, Chief Justice Roberts announced the judgment that allows the law to go forward with its mission of covering more than 30 million uninsured Americans. Many observers speculate that Roberts’s ruling reflected his attempt to avoid going down in history as an activist chief justice on what might be the most important decision of his tenure.

UrbanFaith spoke to a variety of legal and medical experts about what the implications of today’s decision may be.

BERNARD JAMES: “An extraordinarily important substantive issue about the power of Congress under the Commerce Clause.”

Bernard James, professor of law at Pepperdine University in Malibu, California, along with three other sources UrbanFaith talked to earlier this week, expected the individual mandate to be struck down, but said the ruling has the potential to answer “an extraordinarily important substantive issue about the power of Congress under the Commerce Clause.”

The Commerce Clause refers to Article 1, Section 8, Clause 3 of the U.S. Constitution. It gives Congress the power to regulate commerce with foreign nations and among the states.

“Once it’s clear what the Commerce Clause permits and what it requires, not just health care, but all other subjects on the current agenda for this Congress will be more easily pondered and legislated,” said James.

“There were not five votes to uphold [the individual mandate] on the ground that Congress could use its power to regulate commerce between the states to require everyone to buy health insurance. However, five Justices agreed that the penalty that someone must pay if he refuses to buy insurance is a kind of tax that Congress can impose using its taxing power,” editor Amy Howe wrote on the SCOTUS blog. “Because the mandate survives, the Court did not need to decide what other parts of the statute were constitutional, except for a provision that required states to comply with new eligibility requirements for Medicaid or risk losing their funding. On that question, the Court held that the provision is constitutional as long as states would only lose,” she wrote in her summary of the ruling.

JAMES A. DAVIDS: “This is like federalism on steroids.”

James A. Davids, former president of the Christian Legal Society and a joint professor at the Robertson School of Government and the School of Law at Regent University in Virginia Beach, Virginia, said that ever since the New Deal was implemented in the 1930s, the Supreme Court has viewed federal power “expansively.” That vision of federal power was “tweaked” under the Renquist court, Davids said, in its rulings on two bills, the Violence Against Women Act of 1994 and the Gun-Free School Zones Act of 1990. As with today’s ruling, the court said then that there may be good reasons to enact these laws, but not under the Commerce Clause. “There were exceptions going into the power of the government under the Renquist court, under federalism issues, and this is like federalism on steroids,” said Davids.

Davids also said the Rehnquist court ruled that it was constitutional for the federal government to withhold highway funding from South Dakota when the state refused to comply with the National Minimum Drinking Age Act. In this case, the Court said current Medicaid funding cannot be revoked, but new funding can be withheld.

“Nothing in our opinion precludes Congress from offering funds under the ACA to expand the availability of health care, and requiring that states accepting such funds comply with the conditions on their use. What Congress is not free to do is to penalize States that choose not to participate in that new program by taking away their existing Medicaid funding,” Chief Justice Roberts wrote in his opinion. Roberts, who was appointed by President George W. Bush, cast the deciding vote to uphold the ACA.

DR. BEN CARSON:“We got what could be expected” from politicians.

For Dr. Ben Carson, the world-famous neurosurgeon and director of pediatric neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins Children’s Center in Baltimore, Maryland, the outcome of today’s decision doesn’t change much. “The impetus behind the bill was the fact that we had these escalating costs and people who weren’t adequately covered … even though we spend twice as much per capita on healthcare as anybody else in the world,” said Carson.

He supports the concept of health-care reform, but doesn’t think the ACA was done right and compared the effort to hiring pundits to rebuild a bridge instead of hiring structural engineers. “It was done by politicians and special interest groups as opposed to by people who actually know what the problem is and know how to deal with it,” said Carson. “We got what could be expected in that situation.”

Escalating beaurocracy and a lack of comprehensive electronic medical records make the practice of medicine more difficult than it once was, Carson said. In his new book, America the Beautiful: Rediscovering What Made This Nation Great, he includes a chapter on health-care reform. He suggests using “health stamps” to incentivize the uninsured to use  clinics rather than emergency rooms for their primary care. This would lead not only to cost savings, but to better care for patients with chronic illnesses, Carson said.

He also advocates Tort reform to rein in the costs of medical malpractice suits. “We’re the country in the world that has the biggest problem with that. Is it because we have the worst doctors? Of course not. It’s because of special interest groups. The Trial Lawyers Association. We will not deal with them. Every time it has come up before Congress, the House has passed it, but the Senate will not vote on it, because there are some filibustering senators who are in the hip pocket of the Trial Lawyers Association,” said Carson.

Finally, Carson said we have to come to grips with the fact that insurers make money by denying people care. “That’s a basic inherent conflict of interest. We have to find a way to deal with that,” he said.

TONY MEGGS: “We’re grateful that congress, both left and right, saw healthcare sharing ministries like ours … as being part of the solution.”

Some Christians, especially the self-employed and small business workers, are participating in medical cost sharing ministries like Medi-Share because they can’t afford the high cost of individual health insurance plans. Today’s ruling won’t have a direct impact on them, said Tony Meggs, the president and CEO of Medi-Share’s parent organization, Christian Care Ministry.

As part of an alliance of three cost sharing organizations, Medi-Share lobbied for and won an exemption from the individual mandate for its members. “We’re grateful that Congress, both left and right, saw healthcare sharing ministries like ours and the other two ministries as being part of the solution,” said Meggs.

His organization’s 19-year history of paying every eligible bill (approaching $700 million to date) and its focus on wellness and preventative care helped convince legislators that cost-sharing ministry members deserved an exemption, he said.

“They understand that they need to bend the cost curve in some way in getting people to make better choices in terms of how they live their lives. From a diet and exercise perspective, those are things that Congress was interested in, and so I think it was a combination of [that and] the fact that we’ve been here for a long time. This is how we help people. It’s credible. We’re not scamming people,” said Meggs.

Medi-Share’s steady growth “accelerated” after the ACA was enacted, Meggs said, and he expects that growth to continue because he says there is about a 40 percent cost difference between an individual health insurance plan and a monthly Medi-Share contribution.

There are differences, however. Medi-Share participants must sign a statement of faith and agree not to abuse drugs or alcohol or engage in extra-marital sex, Meggs said. Medical problems resulting from violations of these agreements are not generally “shared,” nor are mental health problems or some pre-existing conditions. Additionally, insurance companies are contractually obligated to pay for eligible services, but “sharing” medical expenses is voluntary for Medi-Share members. “There’s no guarantee. There’s no contract. Our program is strictly voluntary, but what I can tell you is that over a 19 year history, a 100 percent of every eligible bill that we’ve ever published has been shared,” said Meggs

What about you?

How will today’s ruling impact your family’s health decisions?

Obama’s Healthcare Mandate: Redefining Religious Freedom?

Obama’s Healthcare Mandate: Redefining Religious Freedom?

RELIGIOUS LIBERTY UNDER FIRE?: Supporters of religious freedom and against President Obama's HHS mandates on faith institutions rallied in front of the HHS building on March 23. New protest rallies led by Catholic and conservative groups are taking place around the nation. (Photo: Olivier Douliery/Newscom)

Last Friday at noon, hundreds of demonstrators gathered on Capitol Hill and at rallies across the nation to protest President Barack Obama’s health-care law and, specifically, the law’s mandate requiring employers to provide insurance coverage for contraceptives.

Conservative politicians and activists led the charge, with leaders such as Minnesota congresswoman Michele Bachmann declaring, “This is about, at its heart and soul, religious liberty. … We will fight this and we will win.” Bachmann’s battle cry represents a growing movement of religious conservatives who contend that the president’s plan violates their freedom and beliefs.

Growing up, I had the opportunity to attend a Catholic school until my senior year. As a result, I know first-hand the strong commitment to pro-life causes that many Catholics hold. For instance, as a choir member, it was an annual tradition for us to sing at the youth mass that occurred before the Right to Life March, a protest against Roe v. Wade. Abortion, euthanasia, and the death penalty were topics that came up regularly in religion class. So it came as no surprise when I heard that 34 Catholic organizations have filed 12 federal lawsuits challenging the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ birth control mandate under the Affordable Care Act (also known as “Obamacare”).

Under the mandate, employers are required to provide access to contraceptive services as part of their health plans at no cost. However, as President Obama stated during a February 10 press conference, “[W]e’ve been mindful that there’s another principle at stake here — and that’s the principle of religious liberty, an inalienable right that is enshrined in our Constitution. As a citizen and a Christian, I cherish that right.” Knowing that many religious institutions oppose the use of contraceptives, originally all churches were exempted from the requirement. Now, that exemption is extended to any religious organization that has an objection to providing contraceptives; in those cases, the insurance company is responsible, not the organization.

To many people, including Christians, this sounds reasonable. So, why are Catholic organizations complaining?

The problem, they argue, is in the definition of “religious organizations.” In a lawsuit filed by Catholic organizations in Washington, D.C., the plaintiffs state that the mandate requires religious organizations to satisfy four criteria.

• First, the organization’s purpose must involve teaching and sharing religious values.

• Second, employees must subscribe to the same faith.

• Third, the organization must primarily serve those that subscribe to the same faith.

• Finally, the organization must be a non-profit.

“Thus, in order to safeguard their religious freedoms,” the lawsuit continues, “religious employers must plead with the Government for a determination that they are sufficiently ‘religious.’ ” Failure to adhere to the mandate could lead to penalties and fines. Since many Catholic organizations, such as hospitals, charities, and schools, employ and extend services to people of different faiths (and many people who claim no faith at all), it would be difficult to prove they are exempt from the mandate based on religion.

“If a group isn’t perceived as ‘religious,’ then they will be forced to provide drugs that violate their doctrine,” says Chieko Noguchi, the Director of Communications for the Archdiocese of Washington, one of the plaintiffs. “If the government can order us to violate our conscience, then what comes next?”

But don’t think that this is just a Catholic issue. According to the mandate’s opponents, it affects all Americans who profess to believe in God.

“One of the central missions of any church is supporting the less fortunate in our communities,” writes Lutheran pastor Joe Watkins in a June 3 editorial for the Philadelphia Inquirer. “With this mandate’s redefinition of a religious institution, many charitable operations will effectively be driven out of business. Under the new law if you are a Lutheran charity and you provide help to or hire non-Lutherans, you cease to be a religious institution. The same goes for Catholics, other Protestant denominations, and all other faith-based organizations.” He also argues that this will not only impact all religious groups, but also those who are either influenced or helped by these groups, since more time would be dedicated to religious background checks for potential employees and clients.

“It is distressing that our government would opt for a coercive and unfair regulation that requires us to make such an impossible choice,” Watkins wrote. “As a church, we have always opposed the use of drugs and procedures that are abortion-inducing. … Under this new governmental regulation, though, just by simply following our beliefs, we will face penalties under law.”

Watkins isn’t alone in his critique of the mandate. Back in February, some 2,500 Catholic, evangelical, Protestant, Jewish, and other religious leaders signed a letter asking the President to “reverse this decision and protest the conscience rights of those who have biblically based opposition to funding or providing contraceptives and abortifacients.” Also, the Catholic Church is planning to invite evangelicals for their upcoming event “Fortnight for Freedom,” which will take place the two weeks between June 21 and July 4 in order to bring attention to religious freedom issues.

In his speech announcing changes to the mandate, President Obama reflected on his first job in Chicago working with Catholic parishes in poor neighborhood. “I saw that local churches often did more good for a community than a government program ever could, so I know how important the work that faith-based organizations do and how much impact they can have in their communities.”

I am living proof of the positive effects of the faith-based organizations that President Obama described. I’m a proud, non-Catholic alumna of a Catholic school who understands why Catholics and their supporters are upset and concerned by the Affordable Care Act’s implications for religious freedom. By defining what a religious organization is, the HHS mandate could potentially hinder Christians from living out their faith with integrity. We, as Christians, are called to serve others no matter what. As a self-professed believer, President Obama should’ve recognized this.

What do you think?

Are Catholics and their conservative allies overreacting to the mandate or do they have a point?

More God, Less Crime?

More God, Less Crime?

In a recent Wall Street Journal review of Baylor University sociologist Byron R. Johnson‘s new book, More God, Less Crime: Why Faith Matters and How It Could Matter More, James Q. Wilson questions Johnson’s assertion that religion reduces crime.

Johnson looked at every study conducted between 1944 and 2010 that measured the possible effect of religion on crime. In 273 such studies, he found that “even though their authors used different methods and assessed different groups of people, 90% of these studies found that more religiosity resulted in less crime,” writes Wilson, who then assesses what he alleges are the weaknesses of Johnson’s approach. The key weakness he identifies is the lack of control groups in the cited studies. Nonetheless, Wilson concedes that the sheer number of studies show “a religious effect.”

Dr. Harold Dean Trulear is an associate professor of applied theology at Howard University’s School of Divinity, as well as the director of the Healing Communities Prison Ministry and Reentry Project in Philadelphia. He’s also a longtime colleague of Johnson’s. In an email response to UrbanFaith, Trulear said he thinks the Wall Street Journal review is “honest and fair.” He added that, as a fellow social scientist, he has “found it best to … use data to be suggestive, but not conclusive.”

“I use Johnson’s work, my own research in religion and social behavior, and the work of others to point academics, researchers, and policy makers toward religion and religious institutions as valuable contributors to our common good.  But I always stop short of saying ‘religion works,’ precisely because it is God — not human religious activity — that has true efficacy,” Trulear wrote.

“As a person of faith, my ultimate allegiance is to Christ and His Kingdom, and my sociological training is but a tool for His use. That said, I do not rely on sociology to ‘prove’ the effectiveness of religion or Christianity,” he added. “The whole idea of Christian ‘proofs’ is a late phenomenon in Christian history, coinciding with the scientific age, and the faith’s unfortunate sense that it needed to be scientific to have validity. I use social science to point in the direction of religion’s efficacy concering crime reduction, but strict cause-and-effect language is inconsistent with Christian faith, whether in social science or in prosperity ‘name it and claim it’ theology.”

Wilson’s review mentions Prison Fellowship as the largest effort to increase the religiosity of “convicted offenders.” The Christian organization utilizes a three-stage approach that includes Bible study, community service, and commitment to a church and mentors upon release.

“Johnson looked at the program’s effectiveness in Texas and found that those who completed all three phases were much less likely to be arrested or incarcerated for a new crime than those who dropped out. The key question is whether the inmates who go through all three phases differ in other ways from those who never join the program or drop out early,” writes Wilson. He concludes that in an earlier study Johnson found “no difference between Fellowship and non-Fellowship groups over an eight-year period except for those members of the program who worked hard at Bible studies” and then “the effect lasted for only two or three years after prisoners’ release.”

Prison Fellowship founder Chuck Colson responded to Wilson’s review in a Breakpoint commentary that praised Johnson’s work.

“What Johnson’s book More God, Less Crime shows so clearly, is that we’ve been right all along: The Gospel changes lives, and it’s the best hope for keeping men and women out of prison,” wrote Colson.

But Trulear would temper any enthusiasm about the book with this caution: “As valuable as Johnson’s work is — and it is extremely valuable in pointing us to religious institutions and behavior as available loci in the fight against crime — people of faith must remember that their ultimate allegiance is not to what works, but to what is best and right. The answers to these two questions will not always coincide.”