'Faith-Based' Social Services

For Native Americans, It Was A Trail Of Tears

"Faith-based" social services is not an original idea with President George W. Bush or the current Christian right. It is a concept that has been tried before, and it eventually proved to be a disaster for all concerned for the federal government, for the churches and for the population it was intended to serve.

In 1869 President Ulysses S. Grant began turning over the full responsibility for the administration of Indian agencies to American churches and missionary bodies, whose assumed honesty and charitable motives were expected to give them success in achieving pacification and assimilation of the tribes. Within three years, Indian agencies had been apportioned among the Presbyterians, Methodists, Catholics, Lutherans, Quakers, Congregationalists, Dutch Reformed, Baptists, Episcopalians and other denominations. Missionaries filled federal offices as Indian agents and were in full charge of education and other activities on the reservation.

On the whole, it was a disaster for most of the tribes of Native Americans. Some of the agents lived up to the expectations and acquitted themselves honorably. Others proved to be corrupt and incompetent. On numerous reservations, the missionary agents were fanatically determined to "Christianize" (in their own denomination) their wards and destroy everything they considered heathenish.

Acting as bigoted dictators and backed by Army troops, they tyrannized Native Americans with orders that banned their ceremonies, their dances, the telling of legends and myths and all other manifestations of Native religion and culture. Those who resisted, particularly medicine men and tribal leaders, were treated with stern measures, ranging from harassment and the withholding of rations to imprisonment, banishment or death.

During this same period, the Bureau of Indian Affairs made a number of attempts to suppress Native American religion with a series of departmental regulations. This was a direct violation of the Free Exercise Clause of the Constitution and, without a doubt, one of the greatest violations of human rights committed against a native population.

Enthusiastic missionaries bent on the destruction of what they saw as a pagan religion, as well as reformers who saw assimilation as the only way to solve the "Indian problem," zealously implemented repressive government regulations. Children were forcibly taken from their parents and sent off to schools, often far distances from their reservations. When tribal leaders objected, they were held back by troops or thrown in jail without due process. In effect, all Native religious practices were banned.

The policy of entrusting reservations to the churches eventually failed because of the Native Americans' resistance, a growing public concern about Native rights and the treatment by the missionaries. Different denominations also began fighting among themselves over the distribution of supplies and the real or imagined favoring of rivals. In addition, some denominations were unable to continue financial support of their missions.

In Washington, officials began to see that many of the church and missionary agents were no improvement over government agents prior to Grant's administration, so officials in the administration of Rutherford B. Hayes killed the policy, without addressing the constitutional issue.

Although the practice was discontinued in the l890s, some 27 Christian denominations became established among a number of tribes, particularly those whose culture was in a state of disintegration. This, however, did not end the assault on Native religion, culture or institutions. The era of missionary control set the patterns for the treatment of Native Americans for the next 50 years. The U.S. government did everything in its power to break down and destroy "Indianness" including the Native American religion. This policy was not reversed until 1934 under Commissioner of Indian Affairs John Collier.

The Indian Reorganization Act of 1934, also known as the Wheeler-Howard Act, inaugurated a sweeping change of policy in Native American affairs. Often referred to as the "Indian New Deal" it marked a change in the policy of enforced assimilation of the previous 50 years.

Freedom of religion, the goal of so many European immigrants, was finally extended to the Native Americans, giving back to them the rights that were denied for over a half century by a government in cooperation with churches.

This short history lesson makes clear several points. In the first place, the federal government has a constitutional obligation to "promote the general welfare," and it must not turn over its responsibilities to other organizations. Second, the Constitution forbids government to become involved in religious activities.

Most churches have a clear missionary mandate. They see social services as secondary to that function or even as a means to implement that role. Government funding also puts "faith-based" programs in competition for state and federal grant monies. We must not assume that churches would be any more competent than existing social service agencies.

Chief Joseph reportedly said: "Do not send us churches; they will teach us to fight about God." Today we may paraphrase him, "Do not send us faith-based social services; they will teach us to fight about God and federal dollars."

John M. Sullivan is professor emeritus of sociology at Limestone College in Gaffney, S.C.