Faith-Based Human Services Initiatives: Considerations for Social Work Practice and Theory

By Tangenberg, Kathleen M. | Social Work, July 2005 | Go to article overview

Faith-Based Human Services Initiatives: Considerations for Social Work Practice and Theory


Tangenberg, Kathleen M., Social Work


The U.S. culture of social services delivery is shifting to accommodate charitable choice provisions of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 (P.L. 104-193) and more recent faith-based initiatives. In December 2002, President George W. Bush signed an executive order prohibiting discrimination against any organization on the basis of religion or religious belief in the administration or distribution of federal financial assistance for social services programs (Executive Order No. 13,279, 2002). Although public funding cannot be used for inherently religious activities such as worship, religious instruction, or proselytization, organizations may maintain autonomy in their names, display of religious symbols, hiring decisions, and use of religious terminology in mission statements and other documents. Such autonomy was previously unavailable to faith-related organizations receiving public funds for social services programs; funding was contingent on removing religious references and symbols in services settings and complying with the same regulations and standards applied to secular nonprofit agencies.

Faith-based human services initiatives have significant implications for professional social work. Concerns expressed by the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) related to faith-based initiatives include potential proselytization and discrimination in services delivery, worker competence to address complex clinical issues, and consideration of applicants' religious beliefs in hiring decisions (NASW, 2003). Although the profession's Code of Ethics (NASW, 2000) prohibits any form of discrimination, social workers also have recognized the historical importance of social work in religious institutions, especially in traditionally marginalized communities (Cnaan, 1999; NASW, 2003; Williams, Pierce, Young, &Van Dorn, 2001).

Social work responses to faith-based initiatives must consider complex relationships between religion, culture, practice, and policy. Merging general systems theory and ecology, the ecosystems perspective focuses on interactions between individuals and multiple aspects of social environments, including political and religious institutions (Greif & Lynch, 1983). I discuss models and perspectives consistent with ecosystems views, including the open systems organizational perspective (Scott, 1981) and faith-related community organizing models (Warren, 2001; Wood, 2002). Throughout the article, the term "faith-based" is used only in the context of faith-based services initiatives and related policies. The term "faith-related" is used in the context of programs and organizations with religious affiliations. Smith and Sosin (2001) asserted that the term faith-related is more accurate than faith-based, as it recognizes the "complex ties between agencies and their societies" (p. 653) and diversity among providers regarding ways faith and religion are expressed. The term "secular" is applied to organizations and programs with no religious affiliation or content.

HISTORICAL AND THEORETICAL IMPLICATIONS OF FAITH-BASED INITIATIVES

Debates regarding relationships among religion, social work, and government reflect historical issues and controversies. Simon (1994) attributed empowerment practice ideology in U.S. social work to Quaker beliefs dating from the 17th century. These beliefs include the immanence of God within each person, the sanctity of all human life, and consensus building through community dialogue. In early U.S. history, volunteers in religious communities organized most social helping activities. During the 19th century social helping became more formal as a consequence of population growth, urbanization, and pronounced economic disparities. Conflicting responses to social needs emerged that continue to influence U.S. social welfare. Social Darwinism attributed negative social circumstances to individual character deficits and suggested that individuals were solely responsible for improving their life situations. …

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