Faith-based theory and practice

Print More

Over at WaPo’s On Faith, Melissa Rogers, the key player on the first Advisory Council of the White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships, offers an appreciative but not uncritical assessment of the Obama continuation of the Bush faith-based initiative–essential reading for anyone interested in the thing. Rogers bears witness to the ongoing ideological struggles over the rules governing public funding of social service providers that are, in one sense or another, religious.

Some will say that this has been a can of worms that should never have been opened. What needs to be recognized, however, is that the can that was opened–a little by the Charitable Choice provisions of the 1996 welfare reform act and all the way by George Bush–had far less to do with programs than with principles. Faith-based organizations (FBOs) were an integral part of the web of social service provision long before 1996. But through an undemonstrated but viscerally felt belief that FBOs are more effective than secular providers, the federal initiatives forced a confrontation with underlying principles of church and state that a highly messy system was ill-equipped to handle.

For a sense of how the effort to handle it has played out on the ground since welfare reform, I know of no better case study than a book with the unfortunate title of Pracademics and Community Change: A True Story of Nonprofit Development and Social Entrepreneurship during Welfare Reform, by Odell Cleveland and Robert Wineburg. The two authors, a black reverend and a Jewish academic, together created the Welfare Reform Liaison Project, a highly successful community action agency associated with a megachurch in Greensboro, NC. Between Cleveland’s religious commitment and business acumen on the one hand, and Wineburg’s long experience in community organizing and grantsmanship on the other, the Project has developed into a poster child for church-connected FBOs in our time.

What the book makes clear, however, is how much of a minefield the faith-based national playground has been–and of how little help the ideological struggles. Nothing, perhaps, has been less helpful than the persistent claims that faith-based providers do a better job than secular ones. And that’s not just because there’s no evidence to back them up. It’s because the claims have only served to create ill-will in the interlaced social service system of government agencies, secular non-profit umbrella groups (such as the United Way,) and community-based organizations both secular and religious.

Under the circumstances, it’s understandable that the Obama Administration should have sought to dial back the controversies, both by creating a wide-spectrum Advisory Council and by burying in the Justice Department the contentious issue of whether FBOs can be permitted to discriminate religiously in hiring for jobs supported by public funds. Yet as Cleveland and Wineburg’s experience shows, just because you might wish controversies over principle to go away doesn’t mean that, sooner or later, you don’t have to deal with them.