Religious based social services, certainly, is not a new idea. Social services have been the primary responsibility of the churches down through the ages. “Churches and synagogues have traditionally provided a wide array of community health and welfare services as part of their sacred religious missions. They have been supported by the countless hours of volunteer services and social action by members of their congregations and communities” (Faith-based Initiatives). Only in recent years has government control and funding been the norm, taking the accountability away from the membership of community churches. Recent governmental mandates putting some of that responsibility back into the hands of religious organizations has some citizens of this country in an unprecedented uproar, citing separation of church and state as their argument. If that is the case, then government should ultimately withdraw from the position of governing social services and give back the control over the social services domain to the local organizations and religious charities. If Americans stand by the provisions of the constitution, the federal government should get out of the business of providing social services all together (Paul, 2001). Private charities and religious organizations will flourish if we remove burdensome government control. If the record taxation of taxpayers for government controlled social services were to be lifted from the taxable population, then these facilities would in turn receive increased support from local churches and the general public to the benefit of the whole society. Most people are charitable by nature, so charities would likely see increases in their overall budgets if taxes were reduced.
Critics claim that “Charitable choice” allows for a discrepant entanglement of government and religion — to the detriment of both. They believe instead that the Government should encourage increased private subsidies for religious ministries, including tax incentives for charitable contributions. The Freedom From Religion Foundation, a Madison, Wis.-based national association of freethinkers (atheists and agnostics), which supports separation of church and state, claim that “President Bush’s newly-announced initiatives on religion pose the most serious assault on the constitutional separation of church and state in our history” (Freedom From Religion Foundation, 2001). They believe Bush’s proposal is a massive religious tax upon the American public, which they deem as a violation of individual conscience. “The assurance that citizens cannot be compelled to attend or support a place of worship against their consent”, they maintain, “has been a cornerstone of our secular republic.” They believe “Charitable choice” misleads the public to allow all federal branches to provide government funding to overtly religious organizations. They purport that “‘faith-based’ public-supported charities are legally permitted to engage in religious discrimination.”
The term “faith-based social services” covers a wide variety of programs, more or less, religious in nature (Sider & Rolland). While there is disagreement over some aspects of President Bush’s faith-based initiative, leaders from religious and nonprofit organizations overwhelmingly agree that “overcoming the serious challenges facing America’s communities will require new resources and new partnerships among government, nonprofit service providers, and faith-based communities” (Independent Sector: Religious and Non-Profit Leaders, 2001). Other areas of concession have surfaced as well, including the need for other resources from government and private sources to solve poverty, homelessness, access to health care, and other social issues. The services of religious congregations and charities cannot replace government’s responsibility to its people, yet charities and religious congregations can and should act as partners with government. Collaboration between government, secular charities, faith-based organizations, religious congregations, foundations, and businesses is a better way to solve social ills. The benefits of religious based charities and services to society far outweigh the problems that may arise from a few grumblers who don’t want Bibles handed to them with their plates. Most people are thankful for the plate and the Bible, and if they are not, then they can decline the gift and not read it. If religious services are held in conjunction with another service, they can choose to receive that service elsewhere. No matter where or how a service is provided, recipients always have a choice in the matter.
When President Bush announced his plan to allow private charities and religious organizations a greater role in delivering social services currently provided by the federal government, he asserted that private groups do a better job of running food banks, day care centers, drug treatment centers, and many other social programs (Paul, 2001). While some critics view the President’s proposal as a disastrous sanction of religion, Bush’s plan offers alternatives to government controlled federal agencies, which have a less than perfect reputation where social services are concerned. Many national programs such as the Salvation Army do wonderful things in the area of social services, providing food, clothing, homeless shelters, after school programs, as well as religious guidance to underprivileged citizens of this country. The extra support provided to needy families during the holiday season is a godsend to those who cannot provide these extras on their everyday income. The Founder of the Salvation Army, William Booth, Once said, “I consider the chief dangers which confront the coming century will be religion without the Holy Ghost; Christianity without Christ; forgiveness without repentance; salvation without regeneration; politics without God; and Heaven without Hell”. The political atmosphere in this country is such that Christians can no longer minister to those in need without fierce opposition from governmental controls. The purposes of the Salvation Army are “the advancement of the Christian religion…of education, the relief of poverty, and other charitable objects beneficial to society or the community of mankind as a whole (The Salvation Army). Without the Christian part of this organization and many others like it, where would be the passion for service to others. Locally operated religiously affiliated facilities, such as Bethany Christian Services, Christian Services, Inc., etc., provide diverse services from family planning to adoption counseling, as well as basic needs and other extensive services. Halfway houses and programs like Teen Challenge help keep men and women from returning to prison, getting back on drugs and alcohol, or returning to violent and abusive circumstances. These, and others like them across the country, are closest to those in need and understand the complexities of delivering social services to a cross-cultural religiously diverse population with sensitivity.
The voices of religious charities and congregations must not be silenced in these desperate times. At the very least, government should reduce the control religious based social service providers meet when applying for assistance grants. Government, foundations, and larger nonprofit organizations can facilitate the technical aspects of applying for those grants, which are clearly needed “to build the capacity of smaller nonprofit organizations and local congregations to effectively deliver social services” (Independent Sector: Religious and Non-Profit Leaders, 2001). Local organizations must be freed from excessive governmental regulations that would hinder their efforts.
Most organizations of a religious nature, do not force their views on anyone, but instead offer a religious oriented program on a voluntary basis. One study found that groups did not promote any particular ideology, but that their goal was to help folks in their congregations lead healthier lifestyles. In this study, the religious organizations delivering health-care information implement health-education programs, which are delivered primarily through minority churches (Lasater). When religious organizations provide health services, they often involve the whole family, which is a tremendous advantage when you are seeking to change behaviors. Across the country, minority and low-income individuals, many, who don’t trust health-care organizations from having been treated inferior at clinics, will seek help from local churches, who treat them with more dignity. Many people wouldn’t seek, nor receive health-care services, otherwise. Volunteers can help people change their activities to stop smoking or eat healthier, or tutor people to help others make similar lifestyle changes. These mentors are often more effective than trained teachers, because they have been there, too. Volunteers present information within their own cultural contexts, tapping into pre-existing long-term social networks. There are many underserved people in this country and Bush’s plan has the potential of helping a large inadequately assisted population.
Religious organizations offer a wealth of self-help agendas, with services that provide homeless shelters, help for abused women and children, and other important services to their local communities. Any compassionate organization would never turn someone away from imminent needs due to their religious persuasion. While church-based social service programs often mirror secular programs with the goods and services they provide, they may display significant differences in the view of staff and volunteers (Sider & Rolland). What motivates them to participate, what outcomes they expect, and how personally fulfilling it is to them can clearly determine the manner of delivery of social services. Social ministry is the pathway to spiritual outcomes, by simultaneously enriching the spiritual lives of the providers of social service along with the recipients of their services. Through service to others, people may express their faith, encounter spirituality in a new way, and confront their own prejudices and other undesirable characteristics. Cooperative service can also strengthen a sense of spiritual unity with a common vision. The religious design is the spiritual outcome on the outward behavior of others, based on the belief that receiving the benefits of social aid can lead people to an awareness of spiritual authenticity. Social service may be expressive of the religious message to those served, or for their openness to future evangelism. The Bible clearly teaches that we must minister to the physical needs first and then minister to spiritual needs.
One possible risk of giving religiously affiliated programs increased governmental funding is that congressional spending will grow more than ever, rather than being cut as a result (Paul, 2001). Another consideration is that religious organizations risk the sanctity of their faith when they involve themselves with government. Americans have the right to be free from governmental interference with religion as well as religious social services. We have the freedom of religion, not freedom from religion, according to the constitution. Receipt of Federal funds and fierce competition for scarce resources may compromise religion’s historic role as an independent social critic as well. Receipt of government funds may also have a negative impact on volunteer contributions and involvement of church members. Requiring religious congregations that receive government funding for social services to operate a separate corporation may serve to protect them from government intrusion into religious activities and provide accountability to the public as well.
The heated debate over whether smaller, grassroots, faith-based organizations should be recruited to join more established religious organizations in tapping into government grants and contracts, is now intensifying (Religious News Service, 2003). The assumption that faith organizations are more effective than non-religious providers is a key issue for Charitable Choice supporters (Kennedy, 2003). Critics suggest that government-funded faith-based organizations providing job training and placement services to welfare recipients don’t necessarily perform as well as non-religious organizations. Sheila Suess Kennedy, associate professor of law and public policy at the School of Public and Environmental Affairs, is the principal investigator in the Charitable Choice research project, which compares the efficiency of faith-based initiatives. The Charitable Choice research project was undertaken to contrast effects and costs of services provided by faith-based and traditional social services providers. The study looks at the competence of faith-based organizations to bid for and manage contracts, as well as states’ abilities to monitor their services. It also evaluates constitutional and fiscal accountability of both contracting organizations and state agencies for resources, outcomes, and adherence to supposed First Amendment boundaries between church and state. The Charitable Choice researchers claim that “faith-based organizations working with welfare recipients place them into jobs at similar rates and wage levels as secular providers, but that the clients of these organizations work substantially fewer hours per week and are less likely to be offered health insurance.”
The study also shows that congregational leaders who bid for government contracts need constitutional instruction if the programs are to be justly conducted. Their findings suggest a need for more education to lessen the potentiality for constitutional infringements. Religious social services receiving tax dollars have been required to “create a secular arm and a separate account, to remove religious symbols and agree not to proselytize a captive audience coming to them for help” (Freedom From Religion Foundation, 2001). The Freedom from Religion Foundation believes Bush is proposing to remove all these constitutional safeguards. Under the existing charitable choice provision, social service providers cannot discriminate against beneficiaries of services on the basis of faith, but they are allowed to differentiate in hiring and in electing board members on the basis of religious faith (The Pew Forum). They are not permitted to use federal grants to fund any “inherently religious” activity, and they must isolate “in time or location” services funded by direct governmental assistance from those activities that reflect religious content. But religious organizations can apply for government funding to provide public services without having to relinquish “their independence, autonomy, expression, or religious character.” They also may use religious art, icons or scripture in their facilities, and they may keep religious particulars in their organization name, mission statements and other authoritative documents (Independent Sector: Media Advisory, 2003).
As the debate continues on the role of faith-based institutions in the transmission of social services, discussions center around the implications of faith-based initiatives on the nonprofit and governmental domains. “Researchers will delve into the complexities in the faith-based debate to inform policy-makers, academics, and nonprofit professionals, while exploring the role of collaboration and competition for federal funds; effectiveness of faith-based organizations; strengths and weaknesses of religious congregations in social service delivery; and effects of charitable choice legislation.” Studies of existing and maturing methods related to religious social service providers at the federal, state and local levels will presumably continue.
An increasing number of public servants now prefer an expanded church-state alliance in a magnitude of social welfare projects. Legislation has been introduced in Congress to extend the “charitable choice” conception beyond welfare programs to other areas such as “job training, juvenile delinquency prevention initiatives, and drug rehabilitation programs.” Even in these days of unparalleled affluence, millions of Americans continue to live in poverty virtually without governmental assistance. Americans must recognize that, while federally funded programs like food stamps and welfare provide needed assistance to the nation’s poorest families, many rely on religious charities. In many inner cities, some of the most effective groups making a real difference in the lives of the community are religious institutions, whose outreach programs provide food, shelter and counseling to the most destitute. Religious-affiliated organizations have played an essential role in combating poverty and providing housing, education and health care services to the poor, elderly, homeless and other people in need. These religious entities “are by their very nature evangelical; to require that their adherents not proselytize in these programs clearly dilutes their spiritual missions — ultimately compromising their intended power to inspire and uplift their beneficiaries” (Faith-based Initiatives). To take the religious message out of social services is to take the very heart out of them. The message which changes a heart is also the message which changes a life. If you give a man his dinner for a day, then you have made a difference for a day. But if you give him a life altering message with his dinner, then you have made a difference for a lifetime.
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