Friday, February 8, 2008

Amherst Student Calls for Bipartisan Support of Faith-Based Initiative

The Amherst Student, the student newspaper at Amherst College, today called for bipartisan support of federal legislation that would allow religious organizations to receive direct grants in support of their secular, social welfare activities.  Here is the concluding paragraph of a pragmatic, even if idealistic, op-ed piece.

A president who promotes faith-based initiatives could compete for the support of the nearly 120 million Americans who consider themselves to be Christian. There are still, of course, the evangelicals, many of whom focus on their opposition to gay marriage more than on their desire to see the religious charities thrive on government support. However, a new variety of conservative Christians are increasing in number. These “new” evangelicals appear to view government as much as a tool for furthering social justice as for legislating Christian values. According to Pew surveys, two-thirds of professed evangelicals favor churches that are willing to apply for federal grants. Once we prioritize the universal desire to alleviate poverty, churches will have greater resources with which to do good, and more young Americans of faith will take action in social service ministries, thus avoiding being sucked into the quagmire of partisan politics. Religion must not be too separate from the state, when the church is useful in the “secular” sense. At some point, both partisan wings should swallow their hostilities and tend to the crisis of poverty that continues to rage.

I like to see students, especially undergraduates, engaged in issues of the day -- the way students were (or are least were portrayed as having been) engaged in important issues of the day during the 60's.  I must really be getting old. 


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"Once we prioritize the universal desire to alleviate poverty, churches will have greater resources with which to do good, and more young Americans of faith will take action in social service ministries, thus avoiding being sucked into the quagmire of partisan politics."

Election time and it is nice to see a bipartisan call for government support of congregations. Congregations are first and foremost houses prayer where people form organizations to worship collectively. Second, members help members of their worship community before they do broader outreach. Third, when they have discretionary time and human capital they expand beyond their walls, first into the surrounding neighborhoods, and second to the community service sector, working mainly in partnerships with other congregations, and the range of governmental and nonprofit agencies in a locality. Those partnerships are limited with churches taking a minor but essential role. The Bush Faith-Based Initiative failed before because of the misguided notion about the will and capability of little churches to serve, and corresponding legislation called Charitable Choice that was supposed to create a gold rush for federal funds by little churches which it did not do. The initiative also failed because of poor conceptualization about social services done by little churches and their relationships to the system of service partnerships locally. And it will fail again if there is not a simultaneous "buy in" from all the players in the partnership: the 325,000 pulpits, local government leaders and agency personnel, local nonprofit sector leaders, civic organizations, and even for profit service providers. At the community level church members are also employed in those other systems. To think that a top down government effort to enlist churches to solve, manage, or prevent the range of complex problems that the systems of care in the 19,000 cities, 16,000 townships and 3,000 counties address, one guided by mandates at every level, every minute of every day, is sadly a case of blind faith in the faith community's ability to serve.Two quick examples: The highly touted faith-based mentoring programs for children of prisoners cannot be divorced from the service system or schools. These kids come from trauma ridden circumstances and have a higher likelihood of being learning disabled than the general population. No mentor can help a kid with learning difficulties that are social and neurological without training. Faith based fervor often misses the details nor builds in ways to correct program misconceptions. Another is the prisoner rentry programs tied to churches. Guys come back with their addictions untreated, Hepatitis C, HIV and support payments due. No little church can develop a reentry program without an upfront medical screening and monitoring program with public health departments,treatment programs and social services in localities. Do they do this? No!
I have watched this movement from its inception, and maybe readers here notice something that I am noticing. In two weeks since John Dilulio's book came out there has been a Dilulio driven piece in the NY Times, an hour web presentation, and a piece in the Weekly Standard. In my book called Faith-Based Inefficiency: The Follies of Bush's Initiatives I devote a chapter to him. Put simply he called himself the Louis B Mayer of the Faith Based Initiative in an interview I had with him. After a bad run and being out of the limelight, Louis is back full force.
Sadly, the discourse about the Faith-based Initiative has been mired in church/state issues:where air not rubber hits the road. Unless this movement is conceptualized with the complexities of local service provision in mind, it is doomed again. It must be operationalized from the community up, first determining what are the untapped resources in the religious community and then what are the unmet but mandated needs in the partnering service system. Using 21st century planning techniques, instead of 19th century friendly visiting models of service, we just might be able to match existing resources to gaps in mandatory services. This is a huge system and it is complex. Cooling hot faith-based smoke with calls for bipartisanship and not doing the R&D necessary community-by-community will lead to a continuation of Pin-The-Tail-On-The-Donkey like service development that has guided Washington thus far and underpins Dilulio's nice sounding, but "specifics" challenged, election time, analysis.
Thanks for the space!
Bob Wineburg
Jefferson Pilot Excellence Professor
UNC Greensboro

Posted by: Bob Wineburg | Feb 10, 2008 9:44:24 AM

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