With concern for the separation of church and state in mind, Jim Towey, director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, spoke at St. Thomas More Chapel Tuesday.

Towey discussed the potential of faith-based organizations to alleviate social ills. Addressing an audience of about 40 Yale students and New Haven community members, Towey criticized the past exclusion of religious organizations from social service and said he thinks religious groups can help groups such as the homeless, at-risk youth and those with HIV/AIDS in ways that secular organizations cannot.

“If you don’t address the spiritual poverty of these people, you often labor in vain,” Towey said. “Government can’t love, can’t develop relationships with people, can’t show compassion.”

Towey gave the example of prison inmates, two-thirds of whom return to prison within three years of their release. The overwhelming failure of the prison system to rehabilitate criminals, he said, demonstrates the need for spirituality not met by secular organizations.

Anticipating concerns over the U.S. government’s collaboration with religious organizations, Towey said he “strongly believes” in the separation of church and state, but added that this does not preclude the government from financially supporting organizations that happen to have a religious affiliation.

Towey said that in the past organizations have been barred from receiving federal funding because of their ties to religion. He said his office seeks to “end discrimination against faith-based organizations.”

Asking for religious affiliation on federal grant applications also allows the government to keep tabs on where its money goes, he said.

Broadening the scope of his comments, Towey cited a “secular orthodoxy” and a “hostility toward certain faiths” that have emerged in contemporary American culture. Religious pluralism as it is understood by many, he said, pressures the religious not to talk about their faith.

“In an effort to keep church and state separate, there’s been a sanitation in the public square of all religion,” he said. “You institute a secular religion if you don’t allow religion in social services.”

In the question-and-answer session that followed his talk, audience members asked Towey if he thought non-religious people would feel comfortable seeking the help of faith-based organizations and if he thought religious organizations would receive funding more often than non-religious organizations under the White House’s faith-based initiative. Many of the questions expressed concern about what some view as the increasing influence of religion in government.

Sarah Heiman ’05, co-chair of the undergraduate council at St. Thomas More, said she thought government funding for faith-based organizations would serve to buttress existing social programs.

“I do think there is a valid role for [faith-based organizations] as funded by the federal government,” she said. “Funding of programs, however, should be based on the quality of the programs.”

Heiman said she felt the talk underscored the tension between church and state.

“As a religious studies major, the tension between the religious and the secular as it’s portrayed in this country is interesting to me,” she said.