As a cornerstone of his "compassionate conservatism," George W. Bush created the first White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. He hoped to harness the ability of religious groups to provide secular social services inside the arenas they know better than the federal government: their own communities. But the office — created as it was by such an openly religious president — immediately stoked fears of blurring the line between separation of church and state.
Eight years later, Barack Obama did not discard the idea (although he did rename the office), and its slow reshaping reflects the background of a president who counts himself as both a Christian and a constitutional law scholar.
"The public perception was at best erroneous, especially toward the end [of the Bush administration], and at worst, deeply negative," said Joshua DuBois, the director of the new Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships.
Bush's office was viewed not only as an affront to the Establishment Clause, but also by religious and community groups as a font of funding within the White House. That wasn't the case then, and it isn't the case now. The OFBNP has no independent funding stream; instead, it connects organizations with grants provided through other federal agencies and, in many more cases, provides assistance where no one gets money at all.
"If we're turning the corner on this dollar-focused perception — if it's not all about money — what's the whole thing about now?" DuBois asked a room full of precisely the people who have been wondering this in a conference on faith-based partnerships at the Brookings Institution. "Our guiding vision is this: to connect with faith-based and other neighborhood organizations on specific challenges confronting our communities and partner with those groups to strengthen their good work. Support may not only be about federal grants."
As an example, he pointed to an H1N1 flu vaccine tool kit created with the Department of Health and Human Services and disseminated to congregations to help them manage the crisis. It was a transfer of knowledge, not money, Dubois said.
Obama's office inherits, however, a number of unanswered questions more than a decade into the faith-based experiment: Are faith-based organizations better at providing certain services than their secular counterparts? How do you identify which programs work best when government has few strong evaluation and monitoring mechanisms? And how do you best channel taxpayer money to religious organizations to do explicitly non-religious work?
Stephen Monsma, a research fellow at the Paul Henry Institute at Calvin College, has found that (with exceptions) participants receiving services from faith-based organizations have had somewhat better outcomes then those working with secular groups — but not to a statistically significant degree.
Duke professor Mark Chaves studies a different side of the equation: whether federal faith-based encouragement has spurred any change in the social services provided by individual religious congregations. He compared data from the 1998 National Congregations Study (conducted after the "Charitable Choice" provision of the 1996 welfare reform bill allowed faith-based groups to vie for federal funds) with data collected in 2006-07. Congregations showed an increased interest in doing social service work over that time.
"Behavior, however, is another story," Chaves said. "It didn't change, not at all. There's no increase in congregation social service involvement, no increase in paid staff doing social services in congregations, no increase in the percentage who received government money."
That percentage, in fact, has been around 3 percent since 1950.
While it's clear religious groups do valuable non-religious work — hosting soup kitchens, constructing Habitat for Humanity housing, etc. — less clear is whether federal faith-based coordination is putting any dent in the national need for services, as it was intended to do.
When Obama created the new office in February 2009, he also ordered up a related 25-member presidential advisory council, which is due in the next month to release a report that will include recommendations on setting clearer legal guidelines for religious groups that receive federal money.
To be more effective, groups need that narrower guidance, said researcher Rebecca Sager, but also a greater emphasis on what they can provide to needy citizens rather than to their political benefactors.
"The sense that they were sent out on a mission without the tools to succeed," Sager said of state faith-based coordinators she interviewed, "led to a growing frustration that the only people who seemed to gain much from the initiative were the politicians who gained political good will from the faith community."
Are you on Facebook? Become our fan.
Follow us on Twitter.