Lead Us Not into Temptation

By Press, Eyal | The American Prospect, April 9, 2001 | Go to article overview

Lead Us Not into Temptation


Press, Eyal, The American Prospect


The avatars of compassionate conservatism claim that religious groups can provide social services more effectively--and for less money--than government can. Don't be taken in.

Shortly after George W. Bush announced the creation of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives--launched on January 29 to facilitate a new era of partnership between the government and religious groups--the nation's airwaves were filled with assertions about the unique capacity of religious organizations to solve our most intractable social problems. "Study after study shows these faith-based initiatives work better, much better in most cases, than government ones," declared CNN's Tucker Carlson on The Spin Room that night. William Donahue, president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, told The Washington Times, "Faith-based initiatives not only work better than their secular counterparts, they do so at a fraction of the cost."

It's a claim many politicians have come to embrace. "We will look first to faith-based organizations," President Bush has promised, "because private and religious groups are effective. Because they have clear advantages over government." The idea dovetails neatly with the long-standing conservative belief that social maladies like violence and drug addiction derive less from material deprivation than from spiritual and moral decay.

But many Democrats have become converts as well. Twice in recent years, Democrats and Republicans have joined hands in Congress to pass "charitable choice" legislation, which allows faith-based organizations to mix secular and religious activities while running certain publicly funded services--an approach President Bush promises to expand to every existing social program.

Relying on religious groups to perform an increasing array of social functions is typically presented as a matter of doing what a growing body of evidence suggests works best. "Churches do a great deal of good for considerably less resource investment than we pay via other institutional means," John DiIulio, the Princeton University professor whom Bush has appointed to head the White House Office of Faith-Based Initiatives, told Sojourners magazine. "That's the pure public policy analysis."

Given how frequently such claims are repeated, it may come as a surprise to learn that there is virtually no scholarly evidence to support them. "We don't have the research to tell us whether faith-based organizations are better or not," says Nancy Ammerman, a sociologist of religion at the Hartford Seminary who is in the process of completing a survey of more than 540 congregations. "Nobody has done the comparative research." Mark Chaves, a sociologist at the University of Arizona who has conducted numerous national surveys of church-based social programs, agrees. "It can't be said strongly enough how little we know about whether religion makes a difference in the effectiveness of delivering services."

This is not to deny the important civic and humanitarian function that many religious organizations play--and have long played--in our society, both through their social-outreach activities and by providing a moral community for their members. Several studies have shown that, all other things being equal, individuals who attend church are less likely to be arrested or to abuse drugs, and more likely to find jobs and escape poverty, than those who do not. But none of these studies tells us anything about whether religious organizations are more effective than their secular counterparts in delivering social services.

While the benefits of channeling taxpayer dollars to religious groups remain unknown, one thing is certain: Doing so will dramatically alter the relationship between church and state, in ways that concern not only civil libertarians but many religious leaders as well. How, for example, will public officials select which religious programs to fund without favoring some denominations over others? …

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