Too often, examinations of President Bush’s faith-based initiative—especially those that come from Washington, D.C.—are done with legislative eyeglasses, which are focused on Capitol Hill and the contentious political and legal issues swirling around the initiative. Fortunately, being inside the Beltway didn’t prevent editors E.J. Dionne and Ming Hsu Chen from taking a different—and much better—approach in their helpful and hefty volume, Sacred Places, Civic Purposes: Should Government Help Faith-Based Charity?
They organized their collection of essays around three themes. The first are the key social problems everyone, regardless of political persuasion, is worried about: teen pregnancy, crime, education, childcare, and poverty. Second are the contributions religious groups make to addressing these problems; third are the ways in which government can help, or hinder, these groups’ efforts.
This is just the right 1-2-3 punch and is a primary strength of the book. Broad in coverage, it is—mostly—ideologically balanced. The editors pronounce themselves “cautiously optimistic” about expanded government help to FBOs. Given that, one might expect to find among the book’s contributors more enthusiasts than detractors, but critics slightly outweigh supporters.
The book’s organizational structure—which starts with the social problems—helped Dionne and Chen to ensure that the voices of practitioners, as well as policymakers, lawyers, and academics, would be included. Most of the book’s pearls of wisdom come from these contributors. The ever-direct Rev. Eugene Rivers, whose Ten Point Coalition in Boston helped radically reduce youth violence there, informs readers that “the debate about church and state becomes stupid once you arrive on the scene and you deal with people where they actually live and come to understand their real problems.” As a practitioner who does live “on the scene,” I’m sympathetic to this remark. Concerns over the civil liberties of people who receive services from FBOs are valid and vital. Some strict church-state separationists, though, act as though religion is somehow more toxic to poor, vulnerable people than drugs or bullets. Rev. Rivers’ point is overstated, but it can be helpful in a public conversation that threatens sometimes to get lost in the thickets of the First Amendment when kids are dying on the streets.
Another practitioner, Catholic school principal Robert Muccigrosso, offers several helpful lessons learned from the experiences of Catholic schools that are performing where public schools are failing. Among his valuable insights are reminders of the importance of administrative autonomy, local control, curriculum that is not tossed about by every wind of fashion, and results-based accountability for principals. Mary Rose McGeady, who heads the Covenant House, which ministers to teen moms, writes probably the most important point in the book’s section on teen pregnancy: many of these girls get pregnant because of the multiple hurts in their lives (abuse, neglect, seemingly hopeless circumstances), and their deepest need is “to hear that there is a God who loves them, who created them, to whom they can pray, who really cares about them.”
George Kelling, a scholar-turned-practitioner who helped conquer crime and violence in the New York City subway system, highlights a point usually absent from discussions of faith-based social service: that sometimes well-intentioned religious folk make things worse. When church volunteers kept bringing free food to the “homeless” without adequate discernment that some of these people were punks or criminals, the volunteers exacerbated the very environment that was making the subway system a nightmare for law-abiding workers, students, and the harmless homeless.
Not only the practitioners make solid contributions, though. Urban Institute scholar Avis Vidal fills a gap in our knowledge through her useful literature review about how congregations participate in various community economic development initiatives (we have not known as much about this since most existing studies are of FBOs’ human service programs). Researcher Patrick Fagan’s chapter on the hard scientific evidence of the positive role played by teenagers’ involvement in religious worship and church activities in reducing the likelihood of adolescent sexual activity is must reading. And Professor William Galston’s admission—that sometimes faith programs work even when the social scientists can’t explain why or how—is wonderfully refreshing.
Some key authors, and at least one critical study, though, are missing from the book. Law professor Carl Esbeck, the chief conceptualizer of charitable choice, was not included in the sections devoted to the legal aspects of the faith-based debate. The discussion on the constitutional questions of government funding of religious social service providers was skewed too heavily in favor of strict church-state separationists. Readers would have benefited from hearing Esbeck’s careful argument that the Supreme Court has moved toward “neutrality theory” rather than its former, strict “no aid to religion” position. It is difficult to conceive of anyone more knowledgeable about charitable choice than Stanley Carlson-Thies, of the Center for Public Justice and lately of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, but he’s not in the book. As the editors rightly note, critics of government funding of FBOs come from both left and right—but a conservative critique, from someone like Marvin Olasky, is absent. The authors of the major papers presented in Sacred Places, Civic Purposes (particularly in the sections concerning child care and education) tend to lean left; there is quite a bit of complaining here about the inadequacy of government social welfare funding in general. In short, the book is diverse in its range of contributors, but could have been even more so.
Mark Chaves’s National Congregations Survey is highlighted in a chapter by Chaves himself and referenced by several other contributors. Chaves’s survey examined (among other issues) the role of 1236 congregations in providing social services, and their interest in competing for government funds to underwrite their own community serving programs. While the study provided some helpful insights, it is not, as the editors state, “perhaps the most extensive national survey of what congregations actually do in the sphere of social services.” That designation belongs to the Hartford Seminary’s massive Faith Communities Today survey of some 14,000 congregations—a study that came to some conclusions different than Chaves’. (Specifically, the FACT study indicates a much higher rate of participation by congregations in social services than did Chaves’s investigation.)
The book goes well beyond the specific question raised by its subtitle, Should Government Help Faith-Based Charity?, but does hit the main issues. Scattered throughout the anthology we find contributors taking up the key questions: Will religious groups be corrupted by government funding? Will they lose their prophetic voice (on the “don’t bite the hand that feeds you” principle)? Will public funding displace private giving to the church charities? Will clients’ rights be adequately protected when they receive services from FBOs? Will FBOs obey the restrictions of charitable choice (which prohibits the use of government funds for purposes of “sectarian worship, proselytization, and instruction”)? In short, will government funding of FBOs work? Points raised on these issues, both from critics and supporters of government funding, are based on the contributors’ theories, anecdotal evidence, and reasoned guesses. A “hot-off-the-presses” survey my colleague John Green and I recently conducted with nearly 400 leaders of FBOs that are contracting with government under charitable choice provides much additional data to illuminate these important issues.
Based on these interviews, the news from the frontlines of the implementation of charitable choice is positive. Over ninety percent of the leaders said their experience under the government contract was “very” or “somewhat” positive, and that they would be open to future government collaboration. Only six percent or less expressed any concern about funding displacement, secularization, or the loss of their ability to criticize the government. Rather than experiencing these problems, some groups found that contracting gave them a “seat at the table” with public officials where they could make policy recommendations and enhanced their credibility among secular private foundations.
Our survey also probed the issues of clients’ rights and charitable choice compliance. We found that these faith-based contractors implement a variety of deliberate strategies to protect clients’ civil liberties: 75 percent reassure clients that services are not contingent on their participation in inherently religious activities; 70 percent emphasize that such religious activities are optional and voluntary; and 68 percent actively notify clients of their right to select an alternative provider. Only 9 percent reported that any clients had left their programs to seek a secular service provider. To ensure that they don’t run afoul of contract rules, the vast majority of faith-based contractors we interviewed segregate their government funds from private donations. And approximately two-thirds of the most “religiously robust” contractors hold inherently religious activities at times different than their government-funded programs.
From the perspective of nearly all the contractors we interviewed (56 percent of whom, notably, had only begun collaborating with government after the charitable choice rules were adopted), accepting government money had strengthened their activities rather than harmed their organizations. Government dollars had enabled them to launch new initiatives, expand existing programs, and serve more clients—and they did not have to sell their souls for the money. Of course, before any definitive answer to the question, Should government fund faith-based charity?, can be offered, we need to hear the perspectives of participants in faith-based, government-funded programs and of the government officials that collaborate with FBOs. Thankfully, we should in the near future. Scholars associated with the Rockefeller Institute’s Roundtable on Religion and Social Welfare Policy are planning client surveys and the federal Department of Health and Human Services has recently commissioned an extensive study of the experiences, opinions, and practices of state government officials with regard to charitable choice implementation.
With a title like Sacred Places, Civic Purposes, the book is, of course, focused on religion’s role in the public square. This has been a hot topic for many years; the faith-based initiative has simply added some new dimensions to the discussion. As Dionne and Chen rightly note, these additions to the public conversation have been positive: they have “renewed our appreciation of what religious congregations contribute to the commonweal;” have “reminded us of the dual roles of religious leaders as prophetic and critical voices, and as practical and loving service providers;” and have “led us to consider both religion’s social impact and its effect on individuals.” But readers can be grateful that this is a book created by people who recognize that religion’s value must not be measured “solely in civic terms.” In the midst of increasingly loud conversations about the public utility of religious congregations (what can they do to serve society, such as offering their facilities as daycare centers or supplying volunteers to agencies building affordable housing) this crucial reminder helpfully cautions discussants from trivializing religious faith—which is, of course, about more ultimate realities.
Dr. Amy L. Sherman is Senior Fellow at the Hudson Initiative. She is the author of the report, Fruitful Collaborations: A Survey of Government-Funded Faith-Based Programs in 15 States.