The Varieties of Faith-Related Agencies

By Smith, Steven Rathgeb; Sosin, Michael R. | Public Administration Review, November-December 2001 | Go to article overview

The Varieties of Faith-Related Agencies


Smith, Steven Rathgeb, Sosin, Michael R., Public Administration Review


The use of religious agencies in publicly funded social service programs is advocated by politicians, contemporary public policy makers, essayists, ministers, and many lay people. The benefits of religion are touted for dealing with such vexing social problems as poverty, child welfare, juvenile justice, inner city gangs, and drug abuse (Cisneros 1996; Cnaan 1998; Cnaan, Wineburg, and Boddie 2000; DiLulio 1997; Klein 1997; Monsma 1996). The public use of religious agencies is said to maintain pluralism, reinforce the norm of personal responsibility, and limit the size of the welfare state (Berger and Neuhaus 1977; Glazer 1989; Loury and Loury 1997; Meyer 1982; Olasky 1996; Schambra 1999). Evidence of the rising support for religious agencies, Congress passed the so-called "Charitable Choice" amendment in the 1996 welfare reform legislation to allow religious charities to apply for government grants--although the charities are not permitted to discriminate on the basis of religion (Chaves 1999; Demko 1997, 38).

"Faith-based" agencies are attractive to many policy makers, scholars, and lay people because they appear to emphasize thrift, individual responsibility, less government, responsiveness, and flexibility in the provision of services. They also seem to allow clients to be personally invested in their own rehabilitation. Nevertheless, these are hypothesized benefits, and it is not simple to assess the hypotheses. Clearly, the nature of the agencies and their services cannot be understood by merely tallying the level of public funding or the number of ministers on boards of directors. Indeed, agencies interact with secular society in so many ways as to preclude a simple correspondence between any one dimension of religiosity and agency action. Religion can be interpreted in many ways, and thus it can motivate many types of behavior. The joint impact of particular ties to religious and secular institutions may be complex. It is critical to carefully consider the way in which organizations are really tied to faith, and given this tie, how they function in the world.

This article conducts a detailed analysis of a diverse sample of religiously affiliated service agencies. It reveals that agencies have varying ties to religion, and these ties affect the agencies' organization moderately to profoundly. It also suggests there is no easy or simple trade-off between the extent to which an agency expresses faith and its size, use of secular resources, or similar factors. As a result, many of the statements about "faith-based" agencies that are made in the popular press or by politicians are overly simplistic; arguments in favor of faith-based service delivery are mismatched with the true universe of religiously tied agencies and their characteristics. In other words, the vision of agencies that is stated by many contemporary policy makers and presidential candidates represents only a small percentage of the total spectrum of agencies that have an important faith component.

Background and Theory

Some empirical work suggests that a focus on religion is beneficial because faith-based agencies generally deliver services for the public good (Cisneros 1996; Hager, Pins, and Jorgensen 1997; Slessarev 1998; Wolpert 1997), that is, they fully express faith in the way they deliver services (Jeavons 1994, 1997). This implies that these agencies' effectiveness is directly related to their faith connection. But because that work tends to focus on small, informal, unstable (DiLulio 1997; Hager, Pins, and Jorgensen 1997; Wolpert 1997), or otherwise specialized faith-based providers (Jeavons 1994, 1997), its apparent implication or allegation is that larger denominational agencies such as Catholic Charities or Jewish Family Services are not really faith-based, and therefore not as effective or beneficial. Indeed, this seems to confirm a more traditional stream of scholarship that suggests many large, religiously tied agencies are heavily secularized and quite like other non-profit providers. …

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