By Michelle Boorstein
It’s been about a decade since the White House started inviting faith-based groups to bid for government social services contracts (first under Clinton, then in a much more expansive way under Bush, and now continuing under Obama). It’s time for the reports and conferences and opining!
Today, experts, government officials (including Joshua DuBois, head of the White House’s Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships) and other interested folks met at the Brookings Institution think tank to look assess the program:
_ Since Bush launched the faith-based initiative, saying it was necessary in part to empower an army of churchgoers to do more social service work, there has been no change whatsoever in the behavior of congregations. That’s what the current research shows, according to Mark Chaves, Duke University sociologist and director of the National Congregations Study, which has been done since 1998. Chaves says the Bush office boosted congregations’ interest in social service work, but that hasn’t translated into more congregations doing social service work, hiring staff to do social service work, etc. Keep in mind congregations are not the primary faith-based body doing such work, faith-based social service groups are.
_ The experts who spoke at Brookings say new research is producing some consensus: faith-based social service providers aren’t clearly better (or worse) than their secular counterparts. This question heated up as the Bush initiative brought more attention (and promises of money and access) to the work of faith-based groups, which meant more lobbying, more litigation. Stephen Monsma, a research fellow at the Paul Henry Institute for the Study of Christianity and Politics, said there is evidence that people who come out of faith-based programs have somewhat better outcomes, but that current research concludes that it’s difficult or impossible to answer this question of which is better.
_ Rebecca Sager, a young sociologist who just came out with a book on the faith-based initiative (“Faith, Politics and Power: The Politics of Faith-Based Initiatives“), said in the past decade every single state has implemented some aspect of the Bush initiative. The vast majority, she said, adopted a focus not unlike Bush’s – changing the culture so government is more friendly to faith-based groups by loosening rules that might hinder partnerships, trying to help people apply for government money, etc. However, she said many people in these state offices became disillusioned because there was no money. Of the 30 people she interviewed who ran these state faith-based offices (she called them “liaisons”), since 1996 there are only three left, she says.
_ Not surprisingly, there was a bit of discussion about how the Obama administration will ultimately come down on the question of whether faith-based groups that get public money can discriminate in hiring (i.e., only hire people of their own faith). This has been the most controversial aspect thus far of his office. A bunch of legal experts today disagreed about whether such discrimination is legal, and there was some evident frustration with Obama for promising as a candidate to end it and then back-peddling to say he needs time to think about it.
DuBois spoke this morning on the subject, saying: “We know that there is a tremendous desire for finality on this topic, but we also know that due to its importance, decisions must be made carefully and with all due diligence. That’s a process we are in, and one we take very seriously.”