Faith-Based and Community Initiatives
“Faith-based charity” is a term that has entered the popular dialogue in the past two years. It refers to religious organizations (like Catholic Charities) and religion-affiliated/associated organizations (like Habitat for Humanity) that provide social services to those in need. This traditional function of religious congregations has attracted public policy attention because the Bush administration is committed to making it easier for these organizations to access Federal grants and contracts to assist them in their social service missions.

The rationale in support of promoting faith-based and community-based social services provision is that locally-driven solutions tend to be more flexible, less expensive, and more responsive to community needs than larger models. Further, it is argued that the disenfranchisement, abandonment, and alienation suffered by many in need can be addressed by a holistic approach to service delivery rather than a patchwork of discrete, often disjointed, and always “faith-free” government service systems. This is especially true those living in poor urban environments where natural family attachments and networks are often absent. Providing such holistic, community-based alternatives to government systems is a benefit to society. These alternatives recognize the role of faith in most people's lives and the role that that faith can play in motivating both those in need and those providing help to be successful. There is scholarship, some if it relying on anecdotal evidence, others more research-based, that indicates that faith-based and community-based options are often more effective in achieving long-term positive outcomes for people in need. Among that body of work are some significant writings by John DiIulio, a political science professor at the University of Pennsylvania in the 1990's and later the first head of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives.

The initiative to support community-based and faith-based provision of social services has attracted vociferous opposition from those who believe that "separation of church and state" is an absolute prohibition against Federal support of religious-based organization, regardless of the stated purpose of the Federal support. There are others who worry that new competitors for scare government funds will place existing grantees (and, by extension, their beneficiaries) at risk in difficult times. Some have expressed concerns about programmatic and fiscal accountability issues surrounding awarding government funds to organizations: 1) not used to the rigors of Federal accounting and evaluation requirements; and/or 2) not subject to the same mandatory fiscal accountability as 501(c)3 nonprofits.

In December 2002, after the full Senate failed to consider S. 1924, known as the CARE Act (see below), President Bush signed executive orders mandating that Federal agencies not discriminate against faith-based and community applicants for Federal grants and contracts. Further, he mandated that the Department of Agriculture and the Agency for International Development (AID) establish Offices of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives similar to ones created in five Cabinet departments and the White House in 2001.

The most controversial component of the recent executive orders signed by the President may be the preservation of the right of religious organizations to express hiring preference for employees of their own faith -- while maintaining eligibility to receive Federal support. Few of these critics realize that this exemption from equal hiring opportunity was included in civil rights legislation in the 1960's and was reconfirmed in the Welfare Reform Act of 1996.

In fact, there's a lot of misinformation and many ad hominem arguments getting in the way of the larger, more important dialogue that should be taking place.

Myths and Misperceptions
Regardless of how one views the issue of Federal funding for social services provision by faith-based organizations, there is a lot of ignorance about the issue and, as a result, much misinformation being communicated as the basis for opinion and action.

The three central myths & misperceptions are these:
  • It's a partisan issue.
    • This issue crosses all ideological, party, racial, and economic lines; there is no convenient shorthand to identify those either supporting or opposing the issue in debate. There are political liberals who support charitable choice and political conservatives who oppose it. There are evangelical Christians who oppose it and other denominations that support it.
  • The issue is exclusively faith-based nonprofits vs. secular nonprofits.
    • Actually, the issue of Federal funding of community-based vs. national (or small vs. large, if you prefer) recipients, regardless of faith-based or secular status is also at play.
  • The debate (and nonprofit organizations) can be framed in terms of either “faith-based” or “secular.”
    • As the taxonomy produced by the Working Group (see below) demonstrates, there are several shades of faith-based and secular organizations and programs.

Suggested Readings & Reference Sources
For those wishing to learn more about this issue, the following additional resources may be helpful. If you are aware of others, please let us know:

White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives
This web site includes documents, press releases, and other information on the Bush Administration's initiative.

An Overview of President Bush's Faith-Based and Community Initiative
A four-page color introduction to the key components of the White House's plan.

“Rallying the Armies of Compassion”
In early 2001, this document announced the Bush White House's faith-based and community initiatives (FBCI) plan, outlined the key principles and action steps, and established by executive order the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives and similar offices in five Cabinet departments.

“UNLEVEL PLAYING FIELD: Barriers to Participation by Faith-Based and Community Organizations in Federal Social Service Programs”
This paper, produced by the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives in August, 2001, examines the arbitrary and often conflicting rules surrounding access to Federal grant support, and documents the concentration of large portions of grant funding distributions into a relatively few large recipient organizations.

Working Group
The Working Group is a bipartisan, broad-spectrum group of national experts and others seeking to achieve consensus on faith-based and community-based social service issues.

The Working Group was chaired by former Sen. Harris Wofford (D-PA) at the request of Sen. Rick Santorum (R-PA) to foster dialogue among nonprofit sector leaders and others to find common ground, where possible, on the issues surrounding charitable choice and the government's role in supporting the nonprofit sector. Its work was instrumental in forging an alliance in support of S. 1924.

The web site features their first report, which includes a fascinating taxonomy of types of programs and organizations. The Group posits in this taxonomy that there are different types and flavors of programs and organizations, rather than the facile “faith-based vs. secular” “either-or” descriptions used popularly.

What's God Got To Do With The American Experiment?: Essays on Religion and Politics by E. J. Dionne (Editor), et. al.
The book is a collection of essays dealing with the history, theory, and practice of religion and politics in America. Published by the Brookings Institution and co-edited by the first Director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, it's a valuable introduction to the issues surrounding the debate on religious participation in government-funded social services delivery. The web link is to a review of the book by Michael Wyland.

Faith in Politics
by A. James Reichley
Also published by the Brookings Institution, Reichley's book includes excellent chapters on the original intent of the Framers of the Constitution and history of the “free exercise” clause of the First Amendment in U.S. law.

Sacred Places, Civic Purposes: Should Government Help Faith-Based Charity?
by E.J. Dionne (Editor), et. al.
This book is a collection of essays addressing “...the proper role of congregations in lifting up the poor and the proper nature of their relationship to government.” This book is published by the Brookings Institution.

2001-2002 (107th Congress) Legislation
In 2001, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Community Solutions Act of 2001 (H.R. 7) by a largely party-line vote. In 2002, the U.S. Senate developed a bill based on H.R. 7, S. 1924, the Charity Aid, Recovery, and Empowerment Act of 2002 or the `CARE Act of 2002'. The Senate was unable to come to agreement on a unanimous consent request that would allow the legislation to be voted on under rules adopted by Senate Majority Leader Sen. Tom Daschle (D-SD). The legislative process would have to be restarted in 2003.

NOTE: the web links in the preceding paragraph are working as of this writing. However, they may cease to work when Congressional web pages are updated. I'll do my best to keep them, and the rest of this page, current. If the links aren't working, use the bill titles in the text to search the web site.

The H.R. 7/S. 1924 legislation was a combination of faith-based and community initiatives, expanded tax deductibility for charitable contributions, and miscellaneous related provisions. At this writing, it's unclear whether the executive order on Equal Protection (and, incidentally, the Agriculture and AID executive order) signed by President Bush on December 12, 2002 will reduce pressure or interest in revisiting charities legislation in the 108th Congress.