Partnership With Faith-Based Communities

If one had $1000 to alleviate the suffering of others, would it be wiser to donate the funds to the Salvation Army or to the Department of Health and Human Services? The obvious answer to this question lends itself to the possibility that some government resources may be more effectively deployed to faith-based institutions and other local community groups. While government-provided social services form the necessary “social safety net,” it has become clear that some problems seem amenable to more decentralized efforts.This last week, George W. Bush established a White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives devoted to reducing regulations and abating barriers that unnecessarily stand in the way of cooperation between the government and communities of faith in alleviating social problems. Though taxpayer funds may be used by religious organizations, Bush’s initiative directs that “delivery of social services must be results oriented and should value the bedrock principles of pluralism, nondiscrimination, evenhandedness, and neutrality.” Secular non-profit organizations will also be enlisted in a “multi-pronged effort that focuses on community, non-profit, and faith-based” organizations “to deliver social services.”

For some on the Left there is the fear of theocratic, government-funded institutions requiring testaments of faith before social services are rendered and the suspicion that private institutions will replace public obligations to those in need. For those enamored of regulations like the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Bush’s initiative represents “a dangerous loosening of licensing and standards for providers of social services.” These concerns on the Left are matched by worries on the Right that government funds will inevitably bring with it controls that will undermine the mission of religious organizations. Religious institutions might become less effective precisely because they become too entwined with government.

Bush has selected a Democrat, Professor John DiIulio of the University of Pennsylvania, to head his effort. DiIulio is sensitive to these issues and will probably proceed deliberately and carefully in implementing a partnership between the government and various community institutions.

There are some core principles that can serve to avoid compromising both religious neutrality on the part of the state and the integrity of religious institutions.


Social services offered by any institution directly funded by the government must be available to all eligible people regardless of religious belief. This is actually a rather simple burden to meet in many cases. By far, the most common social outreach efforts provided by churches are soup kitchens. Providing food does not involve any direct religious component. Although such services might be provided in a religious environment, crosses on the walls in the basement of a church, for example, the service itself does not require any religious affirmation by clients. Care should be taken to insure that a diversity of service providers is available so that those uncomfortable in a religious environment can be accommodated.

Avoid Use of Government Funds for Overhead

Religious institutions should scrupulously avoid relying on government funding to pay for overhead costs or other core expenses. The church or temple mortgage payments should not be dependent on continued government support of a program. If government requirements become too onerous or appear to conflict with the mission of a religious group, such organizations should be able to comfortably walk away from previous arrangements.

Empower Individuals to Choose Service Providers

If faith or spirituality is required as part of a program, that service should be provided via a voucher given to the client rather than direct government funding. Clients should be able to choose the program, secular or not, that best serve their needs. By using the intermediary of the client, government can avoid excessive entanglement with religious institutions while supporting successful programs. This approach in this context has not yet been embraced by Bush, but may become a option as Bush’s initiatives grow.

The most problematic situations occur when social services involve a faith component. For example, some faith-based programs for drug and convict rehabilitation have a spectacular record of success and this success is dependent upon the emotional and spiritual support associated with faith-based ministries. Joseph Califano, Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare for President Jimmy Carter and a Great Society Democrat, explained in an interview with US News and World Report that ex-drug addicts he comes into contact with invariably claim that religion was an important component in their rehabilitation. Seriousness about significantly reducing drug addition requires encouraging the efforts of faith-based and faith-centered programs.

Secular drug rehabilitation programs have recidivism rates of over 50%. By contrast, Charles Colson, reformed Watergate criminal, reports “San Antonio’s Victory Fellowship — a Christian program — has a recidivism rate of 20%. Prison Fellowship’s Transition of Prisoners Program, which includes a focus on substance abuse, has a recidivism rate of 9%.”

It is shortsighted to deny desperate clients access to programs with proven success records. Government neutrality with respect to religion can be maintained by allowing clients to opt personally between secular or faith-based programs.

Common Sense, Sensitivity, and Tolerance

Government funds have found their way to private faith-based institutions in the past in ways that have benefited the community and avoided un-Constitutional entanglement between the state and church. Many private universities in the country are affiliated with churches, yet students use government grants and loans to attend these very schools. Church-affiliated hospitals manage to accept Medicare payments with little problem.

There will be some on the Left that will seize any case where a faith-based institution improperly uses funds to undermine the entire effort in much the same way that “welfare queens” were used to undermine support for welfare. There will be those on the Right that chafe at legitimate requirements for financial accountability on some private institutions. Wisdom is the key to reconciliation of these problems.

George Bush’s experience in Texas provides a useful example of the application of common sense. In 1995, a Texas agency stopped funding a very effective Christian anti-drug organization because the counselors in the program lacked the state-mandated classroom hours. In the words of Marvin Olasky, the guru of compassionate Conservatives,

“When the organization’s drug-free alumni from diverse ethic origins demonstrated with great Texas resonance at the Alamo, cards and letters poured into the Governor’s office. Governor Bush had the political acumen and human concern to come to that group’s aid, and then propose legislation to pen up the regulatory dogs.”

This experience explains Bush’s emphasis on evaluating programs on the basis of “results” not mere technical rule compliance. Bush’s current efforts are fraught with potential difficulties. Political enemies are sure to seize upon any set back. However, not to pursue this approach is to allow fear and cynicism to prevent the alleviation of suffering.

For their part, faith-based institutions should consider a permutation of the Serenity Prayer:

God, grant us the serenity to accept government funds when appropriate,
Courage to eschew such funds when they threaten our mission, and the wisdom to know the difference.

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.