No radical break

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The main thing wrong with Susan Jacoby’s broadside against faith-based initiatives is that, when it comes to the history of faith-based social service provision in America, she doesn’t know what she’s talking about. At the top, she asks:

Who anymore can imagine that the United States managed to exist for
over 200 years without the government providing any direct aid to faith
and its works?

And she wraps up with:

Yet we are moving blindly ahead with faith-based federal spending as if
it were not a radical break with our past. If faith-based initiatives,
first institutionalized by the executive fiat of a conservative
Republican president, become even more entrenched under a liberal
Democratic administration, there will be no going back. In place of the
First Amendment, we will have a sacred cash cow.

No and no. The fact is that the United States did not manage to exist for over 200 years without government-funded social services run by religious institutions. Such services, run by Lutheran, Catholic, Jewish, and other sectarian agencies, date back to the 19th century, and as public funding of social services grew in importance in the 20th, they were in many places the institutions that got the grants to do what needed to be done for the hungry, the homeless, and the parentless. In the 1960s, the Great Society relied heavily on black churches to create elder housing and other programs to help African Americans in inner cities. One of the fundamental misunderstandings about the whole faith-based initiative thing is that it is something new under the American sun. It ain’t.

So what’s new? The so-called Ashcroft Amendment to the 1996 welfare reform act represented a center-right effort to get more religious institutions into the act, and especially conservative Protestant ones that had, often for theological reasons, tended not to get involved. Followed by President Bush’s initiative, this effort was premised on a couple of dubious propositions: 1) that faith-based social service provision is more effective than its secular (governmental or otherwise) counterpart; and 2) that because of secular bias, religious organizations were systematically disfavored in the awarding of government contracts. Neither of these has been shown to be the case.

That said, major faith-based providers like Catholic Charities and
Lutheran and Jewish Family Services are integral to today’s social
service web. And they operate with substantial government funding. One
of the initial signals that the Bush initiative was not serious about
its initiative was the administration’s declaration that there would be
no new funding for it–which meant a zero-sum game in which any
faith-based newbies that got government funding would be doing their
things at the expense of long-time actors. Meanwhile, researchers have
acquired a pretty good picture of how religious congregations are
integrated into social service networks–networks that include
government agencies and big non-profits, faith-based and otherwise.

In some alternative universe, one inhabited by High Enlightenment types like Jacoby, this messy situation wouldn’t exist. But it does, and thanks to the attention that’s been focused on it from on high, some of the long overlooked messiness is having to be sorted out. The hiring issue is the prime example. No one ever expected that the head of Catholic Charities would be anything other than a Catholic or the head of Jewish Family Services anything other than a Jew. But at the same time, these agencies, as they became prime deliverers of services to the communities at large, had no difficulty hiring those from outside their faith communities. They became, in many ways, secular non-profits. Now, thanks to the determination of conservative advocates, usual and customary practices have had to yield to official regulations, be they Bushian or Obamaite.

Given the realities, there’s nothing wrong with wanting to strengthen the web of social service provision–to create better and stronger “faith-based and neighborhood partnerships,” as the Obamaites now have it. The head of the new White House office, Joshua DuBois, tells me he’s working hard establishing his liaison offices in the departments, attending Domestic Policy Council meetings, and vetting the remaining 10 members of his advisory council. It remains to be seen whether OFANP will be a work horse or a show horse. Either way, it would be a good idea for Prof. Obama to use his bully lectern to explain to the American public just what faith-based social service provision means in our country. The level of ignorance is very high, and between the misconceptions and misrepresentations on both left and right, this has all the makings of another religious pothole for a guy who’s hit too many already.