More Questions Than Answers

Four things we think we know about faith-based organizations but don't--yet.

When George Bush announced his White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives in early February, there was an immediate explosion of commentary. Proponents were thrilled that Bush seemed to recognize their point of view: Religion-based groups deserve to be government-sanctioned social service providers. Opponents warned that the separation of church and state would soon be history.



Now a new discussion is emerging: What do we actually know about faith-based organizations? And what do we need to find out?



  • Faith-based social service providers get better results than secular providers.
    "We must be outcome-based, insisting on success and steering resources to the effective and to the inspired," Bush wrote in the foreword to his mission statement, "Rallying the Armies of Compassion." Much has been said about religious groups' ability to achieve better results than secular nonprofit organizations. But is it true? At this stage, evidence is anecdotal, based largely on personal testimonies and case studies, rather than on data-driven research.

    One reason to doubt it is that many faith-based groups are stretched beyond their capacity to serve because of limited financial resources--often, churches in underserved areas simply have more need than they have funds. Also, many church budgets do not place social services at the top of the priority list, so programs often take a backseat to other church activities, such as worship or evangelism. Moreover, many faith-based groups are unaware of funding opportunities already available to them through charitable choice, the provision of the 1996 welfare legislation that extended some financial support to religious social service organizations. The National Congregations Study, a 1998 report by University of Arizona sociologist Mark Chaves, found that 57% of congregations operate social service projects--but only 24% are aware of the charitable choice legislation.

    Future study must assess whether faith-based groups can actually meet the needs they will be asked to deal with. The White House Office will also have to figure out how to get the word out to these groups about the money the government is offering.

  • Faith-based groups approach social services differently from secular groups.
    Few people doubt that religious institutions have a unique ability to "warm the cold of life," as "Rallying the Armies of Compassion" states. But are these providers more likely to take a distinct, more holistic approach to performing their services, praying with service recipients, or fostering long-term relationships with members of social service programs?

    Bush is counting on faith-based groups to rise to the challenge of prison rehabilitation, domestic violence counseling, substance abuse, and other goals that require long-term connections with people. But data show that only 10% of congregations that perform social services actually work on these issues. Far more--36%, according to the National Congregations Study--do social services that address more immediate needs, such as food, clothing, and shelter.

    Do congregations providing food and clothing to the needy perform their services in a distinctive way, for example blessing a meal before serving it to the poor? If they do, is this spiritual activity more likely to help people? This will be a crucial area for future research.

  • Government funding would help facilitate partnerships among faith-based organizations.
    An oft-repeated refrain is that the new faith-based funding plan will allow religious groups to enter into partnerships with each other as well as with secular nonprofit and governmental social service agencies. The logic is that if social service providers can connect with each other, they can form a stronger network of help for those in need than they could on their own. But studies show that faith-based social service groups already have extensive partnership networks in their communities, through volunteer programs, space-sharing, and financial donations. A 1997-98 survey on "religious work" found that almost 90% of mainline Protestant congregations have at least one partner in providing direct services in their communities.

    Thirteen percent of congregations nationwide have partnerships with other congregations, Hartford Seminary sociologist Nancy T. Ammerman has found. More strikingly, Chaves found that 84% of congregations that do social services have at least one collaborator--and 59% collaborate with a secular organization. A question for the Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives is how its effort would expand and improve on this phenomenon and what, if anything, it would change about the current partnerships.

  • Once faith-based organizations are federally funded, their high-quality work will be available to more people in need.
    Even if faith-based organizations do have a higher success rate--which is not yet proved--a further question remains. Would expanding the number of programs, and increasing the funding of existing programs, mean they would still provide great quality?

    Some worry that government money will corrupt the missions of faith-based groups. "We think we know that churches have better long-term success rates, or more thorough healing rates, but that's different from knowing that churches will continue to have that kind of success rate if they get government money," said the Rev. Dr. Eileen W. Lindner, whose article on charitable choice appears in the 2001 Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches.

    Others are concerned that Bush's call to "clear away the bureaucratic barriers...that make private groups hesitate to work with government" will end up removing regulations that prevent fraudulent use of government money.

    Meanwhile, a central task for the Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives will be to clarify how it will apply civil rights and other regulations to faith-based groups. It is unclear, for example, whether the relaxation of civil rights rules would permit a service group whose religious beliefs consider homosexuality to be a sin to refrain from hiring gay community members.

    The new White House office has not yet announced any plans to investigate these issues. This is understandable because, after all, the project has just gotten under way. But with more and more skeptics speaking up from the religious world--Pat Robertson and Louis Farrakhan, notably--public support for the initiative could hinge on answering these lingering questions.
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    Holly J. Lebowitz
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