On the campaign trail last year, George W. Bush staked a large part of his claim to “compassionate conservatism” on the belief that a range of social services now run by secular agencies could be more effectively administered by religious groups—groups that had shown the ability, as he declared on the stump, “to save and change lives.” So it was no surprise that one of Bush’s first major initiatives as President was to open a new White House office devoted to lending support to “faith-based” organizations whose services include things like family counseling, operating homeless shelters, and the rehabilitation of criminals.

As a practical matter, the plan outlined by the President in January did indeed hold out the promise of significant new resources for such organizations. It proposed, in the first place, a number of changes in the tax code aimed at spurring private giving, the most notable being a measure to allow far more Americans to deduct charitable contributions from their taxes. More ambitiously, the administration declared its intention to make faith-based organizations full participants in the multibillion-dollar competition for federal social-service grants and contracts. As the White House made clear, the first order of business for John J. DiIulio, Jr., the University of Pennsylvania social scientist appointed to head the Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, would be to conduct a comprehensive review of the laws and regulations that have so far prevented such groups from taking a “seat at the table” alongside their secular counterparts.

For all the fanfare, and controversy, with which these ideas were presented and received by the press, their recent history extends back to well before the Bush campaign. In 1996, a bipartisan coalition in Congress had added to the welfare-reform law a provision called “charitable choice,” which allowed religious groups to use government funds for helping welfare recipients. Similar provisions were later included in three other social-service programs, and the Clinton administration even chose a Catholic priest to oversee “community and interfaith partnerships” at the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Nonetheless, the bureaucratic obstacles to the participation of faith-based organizations remained formidable, and few groups felt that their services were in fact welcome—a situation that Bush is plainly determined to reverse.

That determination, entailing as it does a real and far-reaching transformation in how government provides social services, is what has brought down upon the Bush proposals a remarkably broad chorus of criticism. As expected, groups like the American Civil Liberties Union, which have long opposed any sort of public support for religious institutions, have registered their objections. But so too, and quite unexpectedly, have a range of religious organizations and leaders, including many of the Christian conservatives whose support was crucial to Bush’s election. None of this has stopped the White House and its allies in Congress from moving forward with legislation to promote faith-based programs—and indeed, according to a recent poll by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, a remarkable three out of four Americans support the idea in principle. But just months after being introduced, the centerpiece of the new administration’s domestic policy now faces considerably dimmer prospects.



The arguments that have been made against the Bush plan fall under several broad headings. The taxonomy is complicated somewhat by the fact that under certain of these rubrics, attacks have come from both the Left and the Right, though of course for different reasons.

The first objection is that government support for faith-based organizations violates the First Amendment’s stricture against the “establishment” of religion, breaching the “wall of separation” (the phrase is Thomas Jefferson’s) between church and state. As civil libertarians see it, the Bush administration’s proposals would put the government in the untenable position of picking and choosing among religious groups, a sure invitation, in their view, to favoritism as well as to religious strife.

For their part, leaders of the religious Right have expressed precisely the opposite fear: they worry that the government will find itself obliged to support groups whose beliefs and practices are outside the American mainstream. Pat Robertson of the Christian Coalition has said that the Bush plan would open a “Pandora’s box,” and the Reverend Jerry Falwell has singled out Islam as a faith that should not receive public funds because, he has alleged, it preaches hatred. Nor are they alone in these concerns. Half of those surveyed by Pew are opposed to seeing government funds wind up in the coffers of mosques, Buddhist temples, or the Church of Scientology.

The second broad set of objections has to do with the effect that public support would have on religious charities themselves. As the White House has emphasized—and as existing “charitable choice” laws already mandate—only the nonreligious services provided by a faith-based organization would be eligible for direct government funding, and clients may not be proselytized or required to take part in religious activities.

But according to Marvin Olasky, a journalism professor at the University of Texas whose writings were a primary inspiration for “compassionate conservatism,” imposing this sort of divide is neither possible nor desirable. Many faith-based organizations, he recently observed, citing Teen Challenge, a well-known and avowedly Christian program for juvenile drug and alcohol abusers, “cannot separate counseling and evangelism. Evangelism is [their] counseling.” In Olasky’s view, forcing such groups to refrain from religious activities essentially reduces them to secular charities—and thereby greatly diminishes their prospects for success.

Thirdly, liberal critics have charged that if faith-based organizations receive government support, they will not to be held to the standards of accountability that apply to other publicly funded entities. Of special concern in this regard is discrimination in hiring. Religious groups, it is feared, will not only exclude workers who do not share their faith but will make other supposedly invidious distinctions, as happened recently in Kentucky, where (in a much-publicized case) a Baptist-run home for at-risk children fired an employee upon discovering she was a lesbian.

Under this same heading of accountability, yet another concern has been raised: that faith-based organizations are not equipped to handle the fiscal and institutional demands that go along with receiving government money. A study conducted in Indianapolis, where a prototype of the Bush administration’s program has been in operation for several years, found that religious charities did not compare well in this respect to their secular counterparts: their proposals were poorly written, lacked clear budgets and plans for evaluation, and did not include properly credentialed staff. Such lax practices also appear to be responsible in part for instances in which religious groups have defrauded the government, the most notorious recent case—because the perpetrators were among President Clinton’s last-minute pardons—being the involvement of four Hasidic Jews from New York State in a bogus religious school that received federal money for student aid.

A final and potentially decisive objection to expanding “charitable choice” is that faith-based organizations simply do not work. At the very least, there is no empirical evidence demonstrating that they are more effective than existing federal grantees. As Byron R. Johnson, a social scientist at the University of Pennsylvania who has tried to measure the influence of religion on social problems, recently told the New York Times, the new White House office promoting the faith-based idea has been constructed “out of anecdotes.”



None of these varied criticisms is trivial, and few of them can be answered with perfect assurance. Nevertheless, and even taken together, they do not constitute a telling case against the Bush administration’s plan for involving religious groups more deeply in the provision of services to our neediest citizens.

The constitutional issues raised by public funding for faith-based groups are in many respects the easiest to deal with. As has often been pointed out, Jefferson’s idea of a “wall of separation” between church and state first appeared in a Supreme Court decision that upheld a degree of state support for a religious institution. In the 1947 case of Everson v. Board of Education, Justice Hugo Black ruled that the First Amendment did not prevent New Jersey from allowing students at parochial schools to travel on publicly financed buses. Since then, the courts have fairly consistently held that faith-based organizations may receive government aid so long as it is used for legitimate public purposes—like transporting school children or providing them with computer instruction—and does not serve primarily to advance religion.

What the Bush plan aims to do is nothing more than to bring the administration of social services into line with this constitutional principle. After all, since the advent of the Great Society in the 1960’s, public officials have increasingly relied on the nonprofit sector to carry out programs for the disadvantaged. It is estimated that the country’s private charities now receive more than a third of their income for social services, health care, and education from public sources. With the government already handing out billions of dollars to secular social-service organizations—including the secular affiliates of the major religious denominations—the real transgression against the Constitution’s promise of neutrality would seem to consist of barring qualified faith-based groups from receiving such funds.

Whether these groups are in fact “qualified” will depend, the Bush administration has insisted, solely on their capacity to provide needed services. That this standard runs the risk of placing public funds into the hands of cults and religious extremists cannot be denied. But the risk has been greatly exaggerated. Aside from the non-Judeo-Christian religions that seem to cause anxiety for Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, and, alas, many other Americans, the fact is that few truly objectionable groups are likely to accept the restrictions that will apply to publicly funded religious charities. One somehow doubts, for instance, that the Nation of Islam will be prepared to cooperate with federal rules for financial reporting, much less the requirements that it refrain from religious recruitment in its social services and accept clients regardless of their beliefs.



A more legitimate concern is that those very requirements, themselves made necessary by the First Amendment, will rob faith-based groups of whatever advantages they possess by virtue of their religious message.

One possible solution to this difficulty is for such groups simply to forgo public support, relying instead on the higher level of charitable giving that the Bush administration hopes to generate with changes in the tax code. Unfortunately, however, these changes are likely to make only a modest difference. The most significant of them, allowing the 70 percent of taxpayers who do not itemize their deductions to get credit for their charitable gifts, would increase annual donations, according to the most optimistic estimates, by $14 billion—no small amount, but only 10 percent more than what Americans already gave to charity last year. (The actual figure is apt to be even smaller, since many people already give without being able to claim a deduction.) Moreover, to judge by current patterns of giving, less than half of this increase would go to religious groups, and only a fraction of that to their social-service activities.

Nor can much help be expected from the nation’s foundations and corporations, which—with notable exceptions like the Lilly Endowment and Wal-Mart—have long been reluctant to support faith-based groups. In 1998, only some 2 percent of the billions of dollars given by the nation’s 1,000 largest foundations went to religiously affiliated institutions, and much of that was earmarked for hospitals and universities. As for corporate America, six of the country’s ten largest businesses, according to a recent survey by the Capital Research Center, “ban or restrict” donations to religious groups; AT&T’s contributions, for instance, are exclusively reserved, as its website announces, for organizations that are “nonsectarian and nondenominational.” The Bush administration’s initiative, by providing new legitimacy to faith-based organizations, may cause a few big givers to reconsider, but it is unlikely to shake the profound wariness toward religious charities that one finds among the heirs, trustees, and professional staffers who now dominate the philanthropic world.

A more promising solution, as Marvin Olasky and others have suggested (and as the White House seems prepared to accept), would be to rely on vouchers to fund those faith-based social services, like Teen Challenge, whose very essence is religious. Such “pervasively sectarian” institutions may receive public aid, the Supreme Court and a number of lower courts have suggested, when secular options are also available and when the decision to participate is a private one, made by individuals. Though this principle remains in dispute—most notably with respect to school choice—vouchers still represent the best option for including those charities that depend most directly on the power of faith. The real question will be whether these groups can avoid the sorts of rules and restrictions that have followed in the wake of federal voucher programs in areas like Medicare, Medicaid, and financial aid for higher education.

Where Olasky and other conservative critics of the Bush plan go wrong is in suggesting that the only faith-based organizations worth supporting are those that make religious activities an integral part of the services they provide. This is not the case. At root, what makes a group faith-based is the religious commitment of those who run it and their devotion—even if through exclusively secular means—to improving the lives of the most troubled and disadvantaged members of their community.

Many such groups are no doubt also interested in winning converts, and should be able to continue doing so independently, with their own resources and on their own time. All that is required is recognizing the difference between saving souls and meeting more mundane needs. That faith-based groups will inevitably fail to respect any such distinction was the burden of a recent article in the New York Times. In El Salvador, the paper reported, officials of the U.S. Agency for International Development (AID) felt they had to withdraw the government contract of an evangelical Christian group, Samaritan’s Purse, that had come to provide earthquake relief. The reason: its members had conducted prayer sessions before showing Salvadorans how to build new homes.

What the story actually demonstrated, however, was something else entirely: that faith-based groups already make a conscientious effort to obey federal guidelines. AID officials may not have been “comfortable” with the religious activities of Samaritan’s Purse, as they told the Times, but the money for the prayer sessions had come from the group’s own funds, and the participation of the Salvadorans was in no way a condition of their receiving help.

As the Bush administration recognizes—and as religious charities themselves often complain—the rules governing such arrangements could stand some elaboration. No one thinks it will be easy to establish clear boundaries between secular and spiritual activities, but the federal bureaucracy has already had to wrestle with defining these gray areas—it is hardly an insurmountable task.

For their part, faith-based groups are justified to some extent in their worry that government money will come with strings attached—it always does—and may interfere with their separate pursuit of religious ends. Here too, however, the record is largely encouraging. According to a survey of nonprofit organizations done in the mid-1990’s by Stephen V. Monsma of Pepperdine University, only 13 percent of the faith-based groups that received public funds felt any pressure to alter their religious practices. Among those most committed to spreading their faith, the figure was somewhat higher, at 22 percent, but the vast majority reported no problems, and relatively few had limited their own religious activities to avoid government interference.



This brings us to the concern that faith-based organizations will flout other government standards, and thus avoid public accountability. Here, too, there is reassurance in how such groups currently operate. Indeed, the problems most often cited to show their tendency to defy public regulation often show just the opposite.

Consider the case of the lesbian fired by the Baptist children’s home in Kentucky, a charity that receives three-quarters of its budget from the state. She claims that the home considered her sexual orientation inconsistent with “Christian values”—something clearly impermissible under current law, which allows faith-based organizations to consider the religious beliefs of an employee only when they bear a “bona fide” relationship to job performance. But the home sees things differently. The woman was dismissed, it claims, not for her beliefs but because “homosexual behavior is not in the best interest of anyone, especially sexually abused and confused children and youth.”

The courts will decide which side is right in this case, but the very fact that it is being litigated demonstrates that, far from escaping accountability, faith-based organizations—like any other government contractor—must abide by the regulations. The same lesson is to be drawn from the recent case of the Hasidic Jews and their bogus religious school: though public attention focused on their having won a pardon from Bill Clinton, the more important point as far as the faith-based initiative is concerned is that they had been convicted for their crimes.

For most religious charities, especially in the inner cities, the question is not so much whether they are willing to comply with government regulations as whether they are able to do so. Generally, these small organizations lack the resources of better-heeled charities, everything from computerized accounting systems to professional legal services. But these are not likely to be permanent defects, and the administration has already proposed establishing a pool of money, funded both publicly and privately, to help pay for better training and other forms of assistance. One can also expect that more experienced nonprofit groups would share their expertise.

Even so, it should be emphasized that modestly endowed religious organizations are hardly alone in finding it difficult to navigate the rules imposed by public grants and contracts. Even more sophisticated charities complain about this. Among the chief problems, according to a Clinton administration task force, are excessive paperwork, “duplicative and sometimes contradictory” requirements, and long delays in obtaining approval and funding. As the task force concluded, streamlining this process would benefit all charities, religious or otherwise. Of particular importance to faith-based organizations will be the elimination of arbitrary rules that allow, for example, the use of professional therapy but not pastoral counseling.



But the real question is whether any of this will ultimately make a difference in confronting the nation’s most serious social problems. That there is little research proving the effectiveness of faith-based groups is not news to their more informed advocates. Even John DiIulio, the head of the White House’s initiative, has tried to distance himself from the more extravagant claims of enthusiasts. As he wrote shortly before taking office, “we do not really know whether these faith-based programs . . . outperform their secular counterparts, how they compare to one another, or whether, in any case, it is the ‘faith’ in ‘faith-based’ that mainly determines any observed difference.”

There are some things, however, we do know about faith-based charities, starting with the fact of their near-ubiquity. As the sociologist Mark Chaves discovered in a 1998 survey, 57 percent of religious congregations are engaged in providing social services in some fashion. A more recent investigation, done by the Hartford Seminary, puts the figure even higher, at 85 percent of churches, synagogues, mosques, and other “spiritual communities.” Studies of particular cities like Philadelphia have found similarly high rates of congregational involvement in helping the needy.

For another thing, it is clear that, at least in the eyes of those who keep them in business by funding them, many existing faith-based groups have done exemplary work. In March, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation—another in the handful of major philanthropies that support religious groups—announced a $100-million expansion of a program called “Faith-in-Action,” which for almost twenty years has been organizing volunteers from religious congregations to care for the elderly, sick, and disabled. Still another success story is Alcoholics Anonymous, whose faith-based program, predicated on the willingness of participants to call upon the help of a “higher power,” receives substantial public support, especially in the nation’s prisons.

In a broader vein, a number of studies have shown that belonging to a religious group or praying regularly has a positive impact on health, family stability, and other aspects of personal well-being. Couples who worship together have a better chance of staying married; and young, inner-city black men who attend church are more likely to be employed. Even more suggestive is research done in the 1970’s by the late sociologist James Coleman, who found that low-income children, regardless of their religious background, performed considerably better in the tradition-minded environment of Catholic schools than in the local public schools.

There is evidence as well that faith-based programs are particularly attractive to the most troubled recipients of social services. A study of Indiana’s “FaithWorks” program, which allows welfare recipients to get help from religious charities, found that those opting for such charities over their secular alternatives came from more distressed family situations and had deeper personal crises, including serious health problems and homelessness. What these more disadvantaged people found at faith-based organizations, the study concluded, was a measure of emotional and spiritual support that other charities, focused as they were on material aid, did not provide.

None of this, needless to say, makes an airtight case. When it comes to the better behavior of churchgoers, for example, the key factor may be not so much going to church as being the sort of person who chooses to go to church. (Similar charges were made against Coleman’s research on Catholic schools, though he controlled for this possibility in various ways.) Indeed, it is the lack of reliable information on the efficacy of faith-based groups that has led DiIulio and others to insist that evaluation and, to the extent possible, rigorous research play an important role in the President’s initiative.

But it is easy to get carried away by the demand for hard social-scientific evidence. Such evidence is notoriously difficult to obtain—complex public programs being anything but controlled experiments—and, more to the point, it has never been demanded of the secular nonprofit groups that for decades have served as the chief agents of the American welfare state. What faith-based organizations bring to the debate, at least at this early point, is not a track record of proven achievement but a great deal of promise—and an old, if now seemingly revolutionary, idea about the roots of genuine social change.



In the end, what is distinctive about the President’s plan is not its reliance on proxies to provide the federal government’s social services—this, as not a few worried conservatives have observed, was a key innovation of the Great Society. What is distinctive, rather, is its unabashedly moral tone. That tone is a throwback to an era when the nation’s charities were concerned not just about the material circumstances of those they helped but about their character and behavior as well.

Liberals may dismiss such notions as nostalgia for a tradition of American philanthropy that gave us poorhouses and orphanages; but liberals, who have their own sins to live down when it comes to the policies they have sponsored, are not in the best position to mock. Above all, as Myron Magnet writes in introducing a recent collection of essays from City Journal, that older tradition emphasized “the attitudes of self-reliance and personal responsibility,” and the need to spark “an inner change in the recipient.”1 Nor, in taking this approach to the immigrant underclass of a century ago, were reformers indifferent to wider social and economic conditions. But, as Joel Schwartz observes in his illuminating study, Fighting Poverty with Virtue,2 they did evaluate any proposed public policy in terms of its tendency to reinforce behavior that would allow the needy to succeed on their own, a task at which the liberal social policies of the last decades notoriously failed.

The most visible modern descendants of this older tradition of charity are faith-based organizations, especially those that operate through the black churches of the country’s big cities. For them, the answers to poverty, crime, and addiction lie not in the ministrations of social workers and government bureaucrats but in old-fashioned virtues like diligence, self-control, sobriety, and, of course, faith. It is these groups that are most eager to win government support for their efforts: in a recent survey, some two-thirds of black congregations signaled an interest in public dollars, as compared to just over a quarter of predominantly white churches.

For these financially strained organizations, already deeply involved in our inner cities, a far-reaching expansion of “charitable choice” would be a figurative if not a literal godsend, allowing them to influence their communities as never before. Conservatives will continue to fret about the specter of heavy-handed regulation, and liberals about public funds going to groups that speak freely of vice, sin, and salvation. But when the dust settles, we may have moved a step closer to restoring religious groups to their rightful place in the public square—and significant numbers of truly disadvantaged Americans might at last receive assistance more useful than yet another handout.



1 What Makes Charity Work. Ivan R. Dee, 242 pp., $24.95.

2 Indiana University Press, 376 pp., $39.95.


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