JULY 31, 2003
The Underbelly of the Faith-Based Initiative
Having studied the complex concerns surrounding religiously related social services since 1983, I was stunned while reading Rallying the Armies of Compassion, the 2001 White House document that launched President Bush's "Faith-Based Initiative." To call this new venture a faith-based initiative is pretty bold.
The year before this initiative was launched, Catholic Charities, Lutheran Social Services, and the Salvation Army, received over four billion dollars in government money to provide a range of services from assisting pregnant teens to helping people via hospice services. Are Catholics, Lutherans, and Salvationists faithless? And such "outsourcing" is not new; indeed, it has existed since the beginning of our nation. After the Revolutionary War, the government paid The Philadelphia Bettering House, a Quaker hospital, to provide care for wounded soldiers. Today's outsourcing exploded during the Reagan Revolution.
So why is there a second Faith-Based Initiative? The answer is in a braided, yet discernable set of motives and activities that underscore the President's efforts: religious, social engineering, and votes, namely, black votes.
Religious. The architects on the religious side of this initiative are mainly conservative and Evangelical Christians. To them, the Catholics, Lutherans, and Salvationists simply lost their souls and had become indistinguishable from the government. Giving new life to "real" faith-based social services had to start with a language that distinguished their approach to social service from the Catholics, Lutherans, Salvationists, and government. Government money in the new scheme had to be transferred to churches and faith-based organizations that provide "relational social services." They center on one's personal relationship to Jesus.
Since many of the "fallen" are in our inner cites, as are many small evangelical churches to which the money is being directed, the strategy has been to get money to those churches and allow God to do the rest. While this provocative stance has been shrouded, the Catholics, Lutherans, Salvationists, church/state separationists, and others have seen through the veil and created enough waves to hinder smooth sailing.
Social Engineering. The second motivation is the elimination of the welfare state. The people behind this part of the Faith-Based Initiative aren't necessarily true believers in faith-based social services. They believe that government should provide little or no help to people directly. To them, government robs taxpayers of their liberty by prohibiting them from choosing whom to assist, when to do it, and how much to pay. In their opinion, aid should be provided almost exclusively by voluntary organizations. The social engineers' view is best characterized this way: There would be no need for government if the 330,000 congregations in this country were added to the 600,000 voluntary nonprofit organizations already providing social services.
Several big problems collide with their view: congregations are places of worship not social service outreach centers. The average size of these congregations is less than 200 families and their budgets average $100,000. State and federal statutes underscore much of government's service. This means that services must meet compliance standards. The social engineers failed to understand the amount of money and effort needed to build the capacity of these little organizations into agencies that can comply with the law. When houses of worship have to comply with government how voluntary are they? To date they have not gotten the "buy in" that they envisioned. The social engineers fired before they aimed.
The Black Vote. The third activity beneath the surface of this initiative is simple politics. The President received about nine percent of the black vote in 2000. By creating an initiative that sends money directly to small black churches, there is the chance to increase the base of support among this traditionally Democratic bloc of voters. So the political architects are buying votes but doing it through the church. The main problem: It is the same government bureaucracy giving the money away that has hair-splitting, tedious applications and unnecessary intrusions. So, only the big guys with the experience and will to survive the granting process are playing not the thousands of little churches the politicos had envisioned.
My mother always said: (1) Tell the truth. (2) If you are going to do something, do it right. (3) Don't use people, you will lose people. My mother would be quick to chide the President and the architects of his faith-based plan: "Clean this mess up right now before someone slips and falls! And next time !"
Bob Wineburg is the Jefferson Pilot Excellence Professor of Social Work at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro. He is the author of A Limited Partnership: The Politics of Religion, Welfare, and Social Service. He and his coauthor, a Black Baptist Minister, are currently working on The Faith Based Inititiatve in Black and White: A Policy Analysis From Inside the Black Church.