March 5, 2003

The Faith-Based Initiative Two Years Later: Examining its Potential, Progress and Problems

“Conceptions of the proper relationship between church and state, between religious organizations and government, have been in flux in the United States for many decades,” Stanley Carlson-Thies of the Center for Public Justice argued at a recent public discussion of the faith-based initiative. “There was no long-settled consensus which the Bush administration arbitrarily started to overturn. …Renegotiating the church-state boundaries is one key part of renegotiating the relationship between government and civil society.”

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Barry Lynn of Americans United for Separation of Church and State argued that the faith-based initiative oversteps constitutional bounds. “All the [initiative’s] particular problems find their genesis in a fundamental design flaw, which is the idea that you can protect constitutional interests by simply proclaiming that public funds may go to religious groups so long as they are not used for religious instruction, worship or proselytization.

“The kind of magic formula, as often phrased by administration officials, is that tax dollars will be used to buy bread, not Bibles,” Lynn said. “This conveniently ignores that the government does fund religion when it funds some loaves of bread for the church-based hunger program, because it also, in the process, frees up more church funds to buy scriptures or to increase the salary of the pastor.”

The two were speaking at “The Faith-Based Initiative Two Years Later: Examining its Potential, Progress and Problems,” sponsored by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life and the Roundtable on Religion and Social Welfare Policy. The March 5 event brought together advocates, opponents and researchers of the initiative for a look at the policies, legalities, numbers and debates.

In addressing issues surrounding the implementation of the faith-based initiative, Carlson-Thies noted that 1996 Charitable Choice legislation pre-dated the Bush administration and has resulted in distribution of government funds to faith-based social service providers at the state and local levels. “Charitable Choice isn’t just a debate topic, as it sometimes seems to be inside the Beltway – an idea that can be advanced or dismissed just as you choose. Rather, it is a public policy innovation that’s already reshaping how federally funded services are delivered at the state and local levels,” he said.

But Lynn saw problems with that policy implementation. “The faith-based initiative is becoming a perfect example of how governments try to palm off on private groups the problems they can’t or won’t fix themselves,” he said. “From the very outset the president’s program contained little, if any, new money. He wants to pit the current providers against a raft of new faith-based providers for the crumbs from an increasingly small sliver of pie of federal funding for human needs.”

Further discussion of policy implementation came from the other four panelists.

Kathryn Dunn Tenpas of the University of Pennsylvania and the Brookings Institution gave an historical overview of the faith-based initiative. She argued that the role of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives had been somewhat limited during its second year of life. She pointed to the offices in the Cabinet agencies (initially in Education, Health and Human Services, Housing and Urban Development, Justice and Labor) and noted, “The most effective efforts regarding the faith-based initiative were conducted in the departmental offices: rewriting regulations, doling out millions of dollars, recruiting faith-based organizations, et cetera. These five, now seven, entities [including the recently created ones in Agriculture and USAID] are vigorously promoting the initiative at the national level, promulgating controversial rules changes and doling out millions of dollars to faith-based organizations and intermediaries.”

R. Drew Smith of the Public Influences of African-American Churches Project focused on the people on the receiving end of the faith-based initiative. Based on two surveys he has directed in the past four years, he reported, “Our data suggest that government funding of church-based programs is not something that has gained much support among black clergy, or much support among clergy in general within the high-poverty neighborhoods that we surveyed, neighborhoods on the front lines of any of these anti-poverty initiatives.”

In a survey of clergy in 136 congregations (of which three-quarters were African-American) in high-poverty neighborhoods in four cities – Denver, Indianapolis, Hartford and Camden – Smith found 61 percent of the clergy opposed the policy of government encouraging churches to apply for and use government funds to provide social services. Thirty-one percent of the clergy favored the policy. In this 2002 survey, Smith found that only eight percent of the congregations received government funding for programs that they sponsored, and 88 percent indicated that they did not receive any government funding.

In a survey of 2,000 African-American clergy in 19 metropolitan areas across the country and in 26 predominantly black rural counties in the Southeast, Smith found 53 percent of these African-American clergy opposed the policy of government encouraging churches to apply for and use government funds to provide social services. Forty-six percent favored the policy. In this 1999-2000 survey, Smith found that 24 percent of the congregations received government funds for programs; 75 percent said they did not have any government-supported programs.

Anne Farris of the Roundtable on Religion and Social Welfare Policy looked to an even broader area of activity in the future. “What I think we will see in the future also is a classic social policy issue of devolution or decentralization, of the new federalism that began back with Ronald Reagan,” she said. “The White House plans to take their initiative to the states. They want to open faith-based offices in the governors’ offices; they want to open faith-based offices in city offices. They’ve already appropriated some money for, I believe, 12 cities to have offices. …

“The initiative will also take a forefront with corporations,” Farris continued. “The White House plans to go to more corporations and encourage them to donate and work with faith-based organizations. They’re going to be going to philanthropic foundations, so it will permeate that area, too.”

Fredrica D. Kramer of the Urban Institute pointed to a number of unanswered questions that would help shape future policy. “I do think there are issues around capacity and especially around program effectiveness about which we need considerably more information to guide public policy judgments,” she said.

Kramer also noted, “If the public interest in FBO involvement is to tap a specialist’s expertise [regarding the contents of services], … considerably more research needs to be done to understand what the contents of those services are and what their effectiveness is in achieving the program objective. And once we know something more about that, we could borrow some lessons back to secular programs. That would make the whole universe improve.”

Read a complete transcript of this event.

For more information on this event or on other resources provided by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, contact Heather Morton at 202-955-5078 or hmorton@pewforum.org.