Barack Obama seems intent on helping the Democratic party shed its anti-God image. Earlier this month, he announced the creation of a White House Office for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships — a revised version of the Bush administration’s controversial effort to engage religious charities to help the poor. President Obama speaks warmly of the role of faith in alleviating social ills, and has even appointed a Pentecostal minister to head the office. Nevertheless, there are indications that he rejects the core tenets of the Bush approach, with its emphasis on local entrepreneurs, moral accountability, and spiritual renewal. Indeed, Obama’s political theology — reminiscent of the liberal “Social Gospel” — threatens to undermine religious institutions and quash one of the most promising reforms in social welfare since the Great Society.
Recall last summer when, in the July heat of a presidential campaign, candidate Obama took a partisan swipe at the Bush administration’s faith-based initiative. The Bush program, he suggested dismissively, amounted to little more than a photo-op, “another name on the White House organization chart.” Lacking adequate funding, it mostly failed to help those in desperate need. “We’ll ensure that taxpayer dollars only go to those programs that actually work.”
At almost exactly the same moment, federal housing officials reported that the number of chronically homeless people had dropped 30 percent in just two years — the steepest decline in decades. From 2005 to 2007, about 50,000 individuals escaped life on the streets and moved into homes of their own. Martha Burt, an Urban Institute researcher, called the reduction in homelessness “nothing short of phenomenal.”
What made it possible? The answer points to the stirrings of a revolution in government’s approach to tackling poverty. The improvement is owing, at least in part, to the Bush administration’s rejection of the conventional obsession with bureaucratic schemes directed from Washington. Bush insisted that local organizations — including religious ones — become the central players in virtually every effort to address human need. Federal agencies, such as Housing and Urban Development, have funded nonprofit groups for decades, but usually entities that are large, impersonal, and thoroughly secular — just like their government sponsors. Instead, Bush prodded government at all levels to look for smaller charities that seemed determined actually to help people escape public assistance. HUD grants to these groups jumped from 1,404 in 2001 to nearly 3,500 in 2007. Many were small grants, from $25,000 to $75,000, provided competitively through local institutions familiar with effective charities in their neighborhoods. This marked the beginning of a shift away from Potomac paternalism.
It may not last long. Although candidate Obama touted his experience as a “community organizer,” he described his goal as trying to “improve the living conditions” of the poor — as if those conditions were the only causes of poverty. Although President Obama promises to make community groups “integral” to economic recovery, it’s unclear whether he thinks of these organizations as anything more than conduits of government largesse.
Bush’s singular insight was that large, top-down, throw-money-at-the-problem approaches failed to touch the deepest reasons for social breakdown. Many conservatives have come to despise Bush’s “compassionate conservatism” as a costly concession to the liberal welfare state. But the fact remains that Bush’s conservatism was predicated on a moral principle, namely, that there is an inextricable bond between personal responsibility and sound social policy. Under this view, government spending to help people acquire literacy skills or health care is important — but insufficient. The social dimension to poverty has to be addressed: Helping the poor frequently means confronting personal failings such as drug addiction, criminality, and family breakdown. And, as Bush understood from his own battle with alcohol, the catalyst for change quite often is a spiritual commitment that connects the individual to God and to a community of fellow believers.
It is precisely these qualities that Bush urged churches and neighborhood charities to bring to the table. Drawing on the 1996 “charitable choice” legislation that opened the way to government support for faith-based organizations, Bush issued executive orders overturning federal rules that either kept them at arm’s length or forced them to scrub their religious character. From 2001 to 2008, the White House hosted 40 regional conferences to reach out to new providers and offer advice on grant-writing and capacity-building. Bush established offices in a dozen federal agencies to undo the “pervasive suspicion” of religious entities that typified many government programs. Three dozen state governors, Democrat and Republican, have set up offices or liaisons to do the same.
“It is clear,” writes Peyton Miller in the Harvard Political Review, “that the faith-based approach has fundamentally changed the government’s strategy for improving the lives of the downtrodden.” Most liberal voices jockeying to influence the Obama administration still fail to grasp these relevant facts. A recent Brookings Institution briefing paper called “Serving People in Need,” for example, seems oblivious to the thousands of creative partnerships forged between neighborhood providers and government. The report, co-authored by Melissa Rogers and E. J. Dionne, blithely ignores the moral dimension to social problems and the role of religious institutions in overcoming them. Instead, it urges the Obama White House to “steer clear of unproductive conversations” about the effectiveness of faith-based organizations.
The problem with this liberal agnosticism is not merely that it disregards numerous research studies demonstrating the social benefits of belief. When religious institutions are treated, at best, as peripheral to the health of civil society, they become vulnerable to government neglect, manipulation — and coercion.
Witness the bizarre debate that erupted in 2001, recently revived by Obama, about the right of religious organizations to make faith commitment a criterion for employment. Earlier this week, the New York Times demanded that the president revoke this right — the freedom of association, that is, once considered intrinsic to democracy — for churches and charities that receive government support. The writers at the Times failed to mention that the 1964 Civil Rights Act (banning employment discrimination on the basis of race, sex, or religion) nevertheless upheld this freedom for faith-based organizations, allowing them to choose staff for religious reasons. Until recently, it did not occur to policymakers to accuse the venerable Jewish Social Service Agency of discrimination for hiring Jews, or to insist that the Salvation Army, an evangelical ministry, open its employment posts to atheists.
Opponents of Bush’s faith-based initiative, however, argue that government support changes the rules of the game: No group taking federal money should be exempt from anti-discrimination laws. Democratic leaders have repeatedly compared the hiring policies of religious charities to the racist bigotry of the Jim Crow South. As a lobbyist for Catholic Charities complained to me after a contentious congressional hearing: “I’ve never seen anything like this during my 20 years in Washington.”
Under the Obama administration, we may see more of this style of politics, not less. During the 2008 presidential race, Obama explicitly denounced the hiring exemption for religious charities. Earlier this month he ordered the Justice Department to write a new policy on the issue. Joshua DuBois, who heads the White House faith office, promises that the administration will “have a keener eye toward the separation of church and state.” A decision striking down the hiring rights of congregations and faith-based groups, however, would accomplish just the opposite: It would empower the state to force them to abandon their religious identity, the definition of secularization.
It also would overturn existing law. As part of the 1996 welfare-reform act, the charitable-choice law specifically upholds the hiring rights of faith-based groups receiving government money. They also retain control over “the definition, development, practice, and expression” of their religious beliefs. The law prohibits the use of federal funds for religious activities, but allows privately funded and voluntary religious practices to occur in government programs. Bush issued an executive order to apply the law evenhandedly to all federal welfare spending. Critics feared a “theocratic” takeover, but advocates such as Stanley Carlson-Thies, president of the Institutional Religious Freedom Alliance, point out that most Americans don’t view faith commitment as irrelevant to social problems. “We should not only protect beneficiaries from unwanted religion,” he says, “but also take seriously the many beneficiaries who value services that include religion.”
In addition to opening up competitive grants to religious groups, Bush launched a federal voucher program for individuals seeking treatment for substance abuse. Under his Access to Recovery (ATR) initiative, individuals can join programs of their choice, including secular detoxification units as well as Christian residential programs that make faith commitment the centerpiece of treatment. The ATR program almost certainly will be challenged: President Obama, like most of his party, opposes vouchers. Even John DiIulio, the first director of Bush’s faith office and a Democrat, never showed much interest in them. In his book, The Godly Republic, DiIulio claims that the “administrative tangles” of vouchers render them unworkable or deeply problematic. Where, he asks, does the individual with a voucher go? How do we know the groups accepting vouchers will be effective?
The answers, for anyone who cares to look, are readily available. Since Bush announced the voucher plan in 2003, it has helped thousands of substance abusers find treatment who might otherwise still be waiting. To date, more than 250,000 people have gotten help from about 5,000 organizations in 14 states — the largest voucher effort of its kind. Of course there were administrative challenges that had to be overcome, as with any federal program. But several studies suggest results that surpass traditional approaches. One statistic is especially telling: About 60 percent of the participants who had no supportive family or friends before entering the program said they had a network of support upon completing treatment.
Such assistance is considered crucial to long-term recovery — and it is faith communities that are most likely to provide it. Indeed, what social scientists call the “volunteer-rich environment” of churches is what Bush praised as the “armies of compassion.” His initiative has functioned something like a domestic Peace Corps, sending thousands of volunteers into key areas of human need, including: at-risk youth, who join mentoring programs that are helping more than 100,000 children with a parent in prison; community health centers, which are expected to treat more than 16 million people this year; and criminal justice, where urban churches, by “adopting” ex-offenders, cut recidivism rates by nearly two-thirds.
No federal effort of this scale is without its shortcomings. Some people don’t get the help they need; others resist religious approaches. The Bush White House failed to win congressional support for tax reform that could have significantly boosted private charitable giving. Even some supporters wish he had scaled back government’s grant-making machine and converted it to a system of vouchers and tax credits. There are no reasons to expect President Obama to pick up the torch of reform.
Yet the capacity of Bush’s faith-based initiative to transform the social safety net is real: Its limitations cannot be a rationale for opposing it. In the summer of 1999, on the presidential campaign stump, George W. Bush described his approach to social justice in terms reminiscent of Alexis de Tocqueville. “In every instance where my administration sees a responsibility to help people,” he said, “we will look first to faith-based organizations, to charities, and to communities.” Likewise, the French observer came to regard churches and religious institutions, dedicated to meeting human need, as the social and moral strength of American democracy. The lesson of Europe was that citizens “become powerless if they do not learn voluntarily to help one another,” he warned. “The more [government] stands in the place of associations, the more will individuals, losing the notion of combining together, require its assistance.” Bush’s vision, then, represents a commitment to self-government as old as the republic itself.
From what little we know of Barack Obama’s political philosophy, he is attracted to the social-gospel assumptions of the old Left: The religious values considered most useful are those that prod government to action. Under this view, compassion is defined by government budgets and delivered by government agents. If Obama rejects Bush’s civic vision, he will reject as well the historic source of America’s democratic vitality. Whether his motivations are partisan or ideological, they will have brooding consequences not only for the image of his party, but for America’s poor and vulnerable and the good Samaritans who stand ready to help. – Joseph Loconte is a senior research fellow at The King’s College in New York City and the author of Seducing the Samaritan: How Government Contracts Are Reshaping Social Services.