Why “Faith-Based”? Why Now?
The question of faith-based social services emerged as a major policy debate in the waning months of the twentieth century. The debate started in the mid-1990s as part of the Clinton administration's efforts to reform the social welfare system. The resulting 1996 welfare reform legislation included a provision known as Charitable Choice. This provision made it possible for churches and other religiously oriented service organizations to receive government funds more easily. As a result of this provision, service agencies and government officials started paying more attention to the possible contribution that religious organizations could make to the needs of lower-income families and other disadvantaged or at-risk persons. During the 2000 presidential campaign, the discussion intensified. The Bush administration subsequently set in motion a number of initiatives to further highlight and support the role of religious organizations in social welfare provision.
The questions raised by the debate about faith-based social welfare provision focus chiefly on what faith-based organizations are doing, how well they are doing it, and whether their activities should be supported with government funds. Few solid answers have been given. The more researchers have tackled these questions, the more they have come to realize that important conceptual and empirical issues must be addressed before definitive answers will be forthcoming. We need to know more clearly what we mean when we talk about “faith-based” organizations. We need to know what the relevant comparison groups are. And we need to be clear about how we are assessing organizations' effectiveness in carrying out their programs.
The recent discussion about faith-based social services, though, is part of a larger debate about the future of civil society in the United States. That debate focuses on the quality of our life together as citizens. It concerns