Both Vice-President Gore and Governor George W. Bush have now embraced the concept of relying more on faith-based charities to free people from poverty. But what sort of government aid (if any) is most helpful to faith-based groups? Is it inevitable, once the government cash starts flowing, that Christian and Jewish nonprofits become semi-nationalized handmaidens of the welfare state?
Charles L. Glenn’s The Ambiguous Embrace suggests that the answer is “yes.” Anyone who is interested in the problems nonprofits face when they accept government funds will find this book to be required reading.
Glenn, a Boston University education professor, has two credentials that are very useful in addressing the debate over charitable choice. His expertise, until now, has been in school choice, where Glenn has been both scholar and practitioner. (Until a mid-career switch into academia, Glenn was a Massachusetts state education bureaucrat responsible for creating the “controlled choice” desegregation efforts of the 1970s).
But it’s not a large leap from school choice to charitable choice. As it turns out, most of the case law that has shaped charitable choice derives from tortured and inconsistent Warren Court decisions about parochial schools. Moreover, many of the issues facing faith-based nonprofits and religious schools are very similar. For instance, both types of organizations are threatened by teachers and social workers whose credentials, whether from schools of education or from schools of social work, do not automatically confer possession of superior knowledge.
Glenn has always been interested in European comparisons. Two of his education books, for instance, look at school choice in Western and Eastern Europe. Glenn’s interest in trans-national analogies ensures that The Ambiguous Embrace is, in many ways, a pioneering work.
Most of us know very little about European charities, particularly in non-English speaking countries. Glenn’s book is not as thorough as one would like about Europe; he has surprisingly little to say about Britain, and not much more about France. But Glenn’s discussions of Dutch and German charities are especially informative for American readers. Unfortunately, most of the news Glenn provides is quite discouraging for people who feel that Christian and Jewish charities can accept government aid without compromising their missions.
The German and Dutch welfare states are larger than America’s, and are far more likely than the United States to contract out aid to nonprofits. About half of Dutch government spending is on health and welfare programs, nearly all of this is contracted out. The West Germans rebuilding their nation after World War II thought one way to prevent a resurgence of fascism was to subsidize churches. Both nations also had Christian Democrat leaders who used theological principles that taught that government aid should be delivered at a local level whenever possible.
As a result, if you’re receiving welfare in Germany or the Netherlands, you’re likely to be dealing with a nominally Christian organization. In fact, some of the German welfare organizations, particularly the Protestant Diakonie and the Catholic Caritas, are among that nation’s largest employers.
But Glenn cites several studies that conclusively show that the more money these religious groups received from the state, the more likely it was that their missions would eventually be compromised. Enthusiastic volunteers were replaced by secular professionals who often had no interest in a school or welfare organization’s Christian mission. The German and Dutch experience, Glenn writes, shows that “it can be a constant battle for a school or agency to maintain a distinctive religious character when professional norms have become highly secular.”
“Professionalism,” Glenn shows, is an increasingly weak argument for bureaucrats to use to impose regulation. For most of the 20th century, teachers and social workers have striven to be as professional—and as independent—as doctors and lawyers. But these efforts were defeated by the innate nature of bureaucracies to impose rigid, inflexible rules to ensure that civil servants aren’t able to make mistakes As a result, teachers and social workers are little more than “cogs in a great machine” with little room to maneuver. As a result, in distinction to doctors and lawyers, newly minted M.Eds and MSWs are, in the words of sociologist Nina Toren, joining “heteronomous semi-professions.”
There’s even some evidence that the “professional” training social workers receive makes them less able to improve the lives of the poor. The secular social worker is trained to approach her client with the cool neutrality of a male doctor examining a female patient. Her Christian or Jewish counterpart enters the battle against destitution with a deep understanding of good and evil and a firm understanding both of what leads someone into a life of vice, and how he can be redeemed toward the path of virtue. Who, Glenn asks, is better able to help the poor?
Martin Morse Wooster is a contributing editor to Philanthropy and is the author of Should Foundations Live Forever? and The Great Philanthropists and the Problem of Donor Intent.