Faith-Based WH

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A few days ago WaPo’s Michelle Boorstein and Jacqueline Salmon had a good piece on what the Obama administration may do with respect to faith-based social service funding. I have it on pretty good authority that there will in fact be an office of faith-based and community service in the Obama White House–though whether it will be called that I don’t know. Boorstein and Salmon rightly call attention to the issue of employment, on which the Bush initiative foundered, at least in Congress. Obama’s position has been not to support the kind of waiver of anti-discrimination laws that the Bush White House has gone in for.

Obama said this summer that he would not allow religious groups to get federal funding if they discriminate in hiring. But evangelicals close to the Obama team say they are getting signals that the door might still be open to changes. Being required to hire non-Christians would be a deal-breaker even for progressive evangelicals, they say.

Personally, I’d be surprised if an Obama administration accommodated them to any appreciable degree. This gets at a core issue of church-state separation. If it detracts from a religious institution’s mission to hire those who are not with the religious program to perform the secular business that the government funds are underwriting, then there’s good reason to suspect that the government would be in the business of furthering the religious ends of the institution.

Be all that as it may, this is a good time to bring to the table actual empirical evidence of the efficacy of Bush’s faith-based initiative thus far. As it happens, I’ve just received a new paper on the effects of the initiative on congregations by Mark Chaves of Duke and Bob Wineburg of UNC-Greensboro, than whom no one one knows more about what congregations do and how they undertake social service provision. Using two massive congregation studies conducted by Chaves in 1998 and 2006-07, the authors find that though the Bush initiative piqued congregations’ interest, it did not increase the number of congregations involved in social service provision at all. To a small extent, there was an increase in the percentage of congregations already involved in such work that received government funds.
If the Obama folks really want to accomplish something in this area, they need to have a much better grasp than the Bushies were interested in having of the way the social service network of government agencies, large (secular and faith-based) non-profits, and congregations actually relate to each other. Here’s Mark’s email summary of “the fundamental misconceptions/mistakes behind the initiative”:

It tried to direct resources to a particular type of organization rather than at the system/network as a whole, it tried to bypass the existing major social service organizations because of a fantasy that a nascent alternative system could be built, and it ignored all the ways that religion and religious organizations (including congregations) already were a key part of the existing system.
It’ll be interesting to see if the Obama administration can move beyond the hiring discrimination issue (which I think is something of a red herring) and basically reconceptualize an initiative from the ground up. A big part of that reconceptualization should be to start from the idea that community systems of care need strengthening rather than from the (false) ideas that a particular kind of organization is discriminated against in funding competitions and that those discriminated against organizations are more effective than other kinds of organizations in delivering services.

My guess is that the success of any such reconceptualization will depend on the interest and enthusiasm of whoever is chosen as secretary of Health and Human Services.