Faith, Hope, and Charities

Thursday, January 22, 2009

One program many thought would not outlive the Bush presidency is his faith-based initiative. Seemingly fueled by his personal evangelical Christianity and enacted unilaterally by his first executive order as president, the policy allowing religious organizations to receive government funds to perform social services was a signature Bush effort from the start.

Imagine the surprise, then, when Democratic nominee Barack Obama announced in a campaign speech that, as president, he would continue a program of faith-based initiatives. The new president’s support of faithbased programs makes it clear that these programs are not merely shortterm priorities of one leader but instead have become a new way of doing business.

Some on the right dismissed Obama’s campaign statement as political posturing, an effort to appeal to regular churchgoing voters who once turned out heavily for Bush and who favored Republican candidate John McCain 49 to 37 percent in the recently concluded campaign.

Others, from the left, were dismayed that Obama would continue a policy they believe promotes government establishment of religion prohibited by the First Amendment. The Reverend Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, said, “This initiative has been a failure on all counts and ought to be shut down, not expanded.”

The roots of faith-based initiatives can be traced back more than a decade before Bush’s executive order in 2001. President George H. W. Bush, building on Ronald Reagan’s “devolution” of many social programs from Washington, D.C., to state and local governments, began his “thousand points of light” initiatives. Speaking of a “kinder, gentler” nation, Bush used the bully pulpit of the presidency to recognize and encourage volunteer efforts, religious and otherwise, in local communities.

Barack Obama’s support of faith-based programs is clear evidence that these programs are not just the short-term priorities of one president. They are, instead, a new way of doing business.

Next came President Bill Clinton’s charitable-choice initiatives. As part of welfare reform and job-training and drug-treatment programs, charitable choice allowed religious providers of those services to receive federal funding along with other nonreligious charities.

Those charitable-choice programs gave religious organizations a seat at the table of social services, at least in the specific areas covered by the legislation.

The Bush faith-based initiatives then broadened the involvement of faith-based charities in delivering social services. What had begun in three or four specific areas through charitable choice was expanded, with faithbased offices set up in eleven federal agencies to assist religious charities with government funding for their social work.

As in the charitable-choice legislation, federal funding could be used only to provide services, not for the religious aspects of the nonprofits’ work. But religious organizations now provide a vast array of government-funded services, from operating prisons (with lower recidivism rates) to dealing with gangs and providing shelter for the homeless.

The spread of such programs is not well known. The White House seven-year report on the initiatives showed that thirty-five states—nineteen with Democratic governors and sixteen with Republican—had adopted their own versions of faith-based initiatives, as had seventy municipal governments. As Obama pointed out in his campaign speech, these religious organizations are generally local and thus closer to the need than the federal government, which has led to some significant successes.

Religious organizations provide a vast array of government-funded services: operating prisons, dealing with gangs, and sheltering the homeless.

Although McCain did not speak extensively on the topic, he also has supported faith-based initiatives, voting for them in the Senate and championing specific programs, such as charter schools. McCain said during the race that he, too, would have continued a faith-based-initiatives program.

Of course, there is still plenty of disagreement about the details. Obama would not allow religious providers to discriminate in hiring based on their doctrines, a pill many of these groups could not swallow and a policy neither Bush nor McCain would have supported.

But, differences aside, it seems clear that faith-based social services supported by government funding are here to stay. They are not just the remnants of a Bush program, as many thought, but, rather, for nearly twenty years, through several presidents and in most states and many cities, they have quietly become part of the social services fabric.