Faith-Based Delivery of Social Services: Proceed With Caution

Douglas Koopman

June 1, 2000

The major presidential candidates are touting the remarkable record of “faith-based institutions” in addressing entrenched social problems such as welfare dependency, crime, and substance abuse. Both Bush and Gore include in their domestic agendas plans to send more federal funds to such institutions, which are either controlled by or closely linked to religious denominations, individual churches, or a local group of congregations, and provide one or several types of social services. But the push for greater interaction between government and these religiously-based social service providers should proceed cautiously. It is fraught with peril, especially for religion.

There are two major reasons why government and politicians might acknowledge the place of religion in society, one utilitarian and the other foundational. Utilitarians might find religion useful in obtaining a desired end, like better social services at lower taxpayer costs. The foundational reason to acknowledge religion is that it is a separate, powerful, and superior area of authority that government has no business invading.

Certainly, utilitarians have a case for greater involvement of faith-based institutions. Evidence from federal welfare reform and from state and local efforts against other social ills indicates that “faith-based” groups are more effective and less expensive than governments.

So why not expand federal policy to the whole array of social services? There are at least four reasons, three utilitarian and one foundational.

First, government involvement may fatally alter the religious aspect of programs which may be their most effective element. That is why many religious non-profits historically refused federal funds. Even after the enacting far looser standards in the “charitable choice” provision of federal welfare reform, the federal government still has significant say over how participating faith-based agencies operate. And the constitutionality of even these watered-down standards is far from established, and may violate current Supreme Court interpretations of church-state separation.

A second concern is that faith-based groups can get overwhelmed by additional red tape, distracting from and limiting their mission. The audits, reports, and compliance reviews that accompany federal monies can be daunting, especially for groups that operate on shoestring budgets and rely heavily on volunteers.

A third problem is that faith-based groups may start to limit the types of clients they work with to meet the new demands that come with federal money. The special contribution of many faith-based groups is that they do two things that government really doesn’t care about. One, they work to transform the spirit of the individual. Two, they will more often stick with the “hard cases” or “failures” because religion tells them that each person, however “unproductive” or “incurable,” is made in the image of God. The “incurables”—the precise group of people most likely to be attended to by religious groups—will be in danger of getting written out of eligibility and written off by religious groups pressured to achieve high success rates.

While these three utilitarian arguments are important, there is a fourth, foundational, reason to proceed with caution. Government and politicians are ever tempted to “domesticate” religion, to see religion only in utilitarian terms and to respect it only when it serves the ends of the government. With faith-based institutions dependent upon government contracts for most of their funds, their supporting churches could increasingly become apologists for the government and its politics—its defender and even its enforcement agent. But religion must remain at least a potential threat to government—a place of higher allegiance which even authoritarian and totalitarian governments cannot supersede. Religion may have to be called on to challenge the government; it ought always to remain a potentially dangerous opponent of it.
Who else will call government to account for the lack of morality in its leaders, its pursuit of immoral policies, or its quiescence amidst cultural decay? When religion becomes overly dependent upon government funds for its very existence, the prophetic role that only it can play is just waiting to be compromised.

Do the presidential candidates acknowledge these problems? There are reasons for both concern and hope. Gore’s public pronouncements about faith-based institutions seem based on what these organizations can do for government. “Faith-based organizations have wrought miracles on a shoestring,” he has said, echoing utilitarian motives. Gore wants to extend charitable choice to “other vital services where faith-based organizations can play a role—such as drug treatment, homelessness, and youth violence prevention” to accomplish more social good with less government cost. The Vice-President also tends to support direct contracts with faith-based institutions (a more entangling approach) over vouchers given to individuals who could then “shop around” to secular or religious service providers.

Bush’s public pronouncements are only slightly less utilitarian. The Texas governor is more inclined to support vouchers over contracts, and he seems generally more respectful of the transformational power of religion. While stating that “government should welcome the help of faith-based institutions,” Bush has implied a greater respect for the independence and power of a personal faith and religious institutions. But many congressional Republicans, so eager to expand the role of faith-based institutions in a range of social services, sound much more like Gore. The difference between the two parties as a whole is minimal. One hopes that the politicians rushing toward faith-based delivery of social services will pause to consider how important it is to maintain an independent, vibrant, and at least potentially hostile religious community.

Douglas Koopman teaches political science at Calvin College and is an adjunct fellow at the Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs at Ashland University.