Delivery of Social Services through Faith-Based Organizations

Both Vice President Gore and Republican presidential candidate Governor George W. Bush have recently called for a greater public role for faith-based organizations in delivering social services. Governor Bush has proposed $8 billion in tax credits and changes in federal regulations to allow greater delivery of child care, drug addiction, and other services by “faith-based organizations . . . charities and . . . community groups . . . .” Vice President Gore has called for a “New Partnership” under which faith-based organizations could receive federal funds to “provide jobs and job training, counseling and mentoring, food and basic medical care”–as long as recipients were not required to engage in religious observances and secular alternatives to the religiously based services remained available.

The growing interest in the provision of public social services via faith-based organizations stems from several factors. First, some faith-based organizations have demonstrated dramatic success in curbing or alleviating social problems in particularly distressed communities. For example, the efforts of Reverend Eugene Rivers of the Azusa Christian Community in the Dorchester section of Boston have been credited with reducing the juvenile murder rate in that community to almost zero. Second, social science data has increasingly documented a strong inverse correlation between religious commitment and social pathologies. Beginning with Harvard economist Richard Freeman’s work on church attendance and juvenile delinquency, numerous studies have shown that religious commitment tends to lessen the tendency of both children and adults to engage in counterproductive behaviors, ranging from delinquency to addiction and violence. Third, dissatisfaction with the outcome of government programs has led both to reduction in federal welfare spending and increased pressure to enlist the help of faith- and community-based organizations in caring for the poor. The 1996 Welfare Reform Act included a “charitable choice” provision that permitted states to direct funds to faith-based organizations for childcare and other services aimed at helping welfare recipients return to work. Several states are taking advantage of these provisions.

The Debate

Advocates of enlisting faith-based organizations in the provision of public services point to anecdotal evidence of the success of faith-based programs. They argue that the dangers posed by the social problems such as drug addiction or teen homicide outweigh any threat to the separation of church and state posed by the use of faith-based organizations. They often argue that faith-based or religiously oriented approaches are inherently more effective than secular approaches in changing behavior.

Opponents argue that directing government funds, at either the federal or state level, to sectarian organizations raises serious separation issues. While organizations such as Catholic Charities and Lutheran Charities have long received large subsidies from the federal government, such traditional charities have pursued their efforts in a self-consciously nonsectarian manner. Critics argue that newer faith-based approaches, such as that embodied by Eugene Rivers program in Boston or Charles Colson’s Prison Fellowship, rely explicitly on proselytization as the means of effecting behavioral change. Subsidies to such organizations, according to critics, can amount to violations of the Constitution’s establishment clause because they involve the state directly in supporting the spread of particular religious views.

The Communitarian View

Communitarians emphasize the role of the community as a potent “third force” in shaping the conduct and quality of both individual and collective life. Communitarians argue that a healthy and strong community can frequently exert a deeper and more lasting influence on individual behavior than the state acting via law and law enforcement. The restoration of vitality and safety to beleaguered neighborhoods and cities usually requires a revitalization of the organic community institutions that enrich and order community life. Healthy families and churches and neighborhood communities and like institutions are the key to shaping the conduct of children in such a way that they will become productive adults.

For this reason, communitarians generally support a creative division of labor, which permits the state to channel resources to community organizations, including faith-based organizations, for the provision of services within a community. Community-based organizations, including church organizations, have a comparative advantage in dealing “close-up” with community members. Communitarians believe that safeguards need to be in place to protect the individual’s free exercise of religious rights under the Constitution. Social service should not be provided as a quid pro quo for religious adherence; secular alternatives should also be available. But for those individuals who choose them, faith-based alternatives have been shown to accomplish dramatic improvements in the quality of both individual and community life..

A division of labor that permits faith-based organizations to act as service providers observes the key communitarian principle of subsidiarity–which posits that no unit of society should perform functions more appropriately performed by a smaller entity. The neighborhood should not usurp the normal function of the family; the city the function of the neighborhood; the state the function of the city; or the federal government the function of the state. Similarly, the bureaucratic government should not usurp the immediate functions of the family and the church. Use of faith-based organizations as service providers–with proper Constitutional safeguards–permits common resources to be directed toward strengthening the community rather than enhancing the power of the state, often at the expense of community institutions.

Reading and Links

Read E.J. Dionne, Jr., and John J. DiIulio, Jr., on the social service role of faith-based institutions in the wider context of church-state relations in “What’s God Got to Do with the American Experiment,” from the Spring 1999 issue of Brookings Review.

In a Wall Street Journal op-ed, “Two Million Prisoners Are Enough,” John DiIulio discusses faith-based programs as a method of crime prevention. 

For Further Exploration

Klein, Joe.  “Can Faith-Based Groups Save Us?”  The Responsive Community 8, Issue 1 (Winter 1997/98).