Leap of Faith

Leap of Faith

Leap of Faith

Politics and policy.
Feb. 1 2001 4:45 PM

Leap of Faith


Earlier this week, George W. Bush made good on a campaign pledge by unveiling what is likely to be his signature domestic policy initiative: federal support for "faith-based" social programs. Bush signed an executive order creating a new White House office with primary responsibility for what he anticipates will become an $8 billion-a-year program. He appointed John J. DiIulio Jr., a widely respected political scientist and criminologist, to head the new office.


This effort bears watching for a number of reasons. First, the idea of supporting religious organizations as a way of helping the down-and-out amounts to a major social policy experiment, one backed by significant government resources and the personal commitment of a new president. It's not equal in scale to Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty, but it is tantamount to it in its ambitions and in the untried nature of its basic method. Indeed, there is a curious similarity. Like the poverty warriors who championed "community action," advocates of faith-based organizations reject "top-down" federal aid and trumpet the virtues of localism and self-help.

The second reason to pay attention is the guy who's taking charge. As a character type, John DiIulio couldn't bear less resemblance to the organization men who inhabit the top ranks of the Bush administration. He's a beefy, streetwise academic with the demeanor and fashion sense of a police detective--think Detective Sipowicz with a Ph.D. DiIulio is part Catholic Democrat, part contrarian conservative. He writes for both the American Prospect and the National Review. He's pro-life but supports gun control and opposed the 1996 welfare reform bill. In December, he wrote a terrific article in the Weekly Standard denouncing the Supreme Court decision that made Bush president. He is also a trained social scientist, not a partisan hack. That background sets DiIulio up as that eternally troubled figure, the intellectual who ventures into politics. 

To understand what DiIulio is up against, you have to first know what Bush is up to. There are three basic aspects to his proposal. The first, and arguably the most important, is unstated: a rhetorical commitment to religious organizations that perform community service. DiIulio will cheerlead for these groups while Bush uses his bully pulpit to support their work. The second element is a tax subsidy. Bush wants to let people who don't itemize deduct their charitable contributions anyhow. The third element is a concept known as "charitable choice," first embedded in the welfare reform bill that President Clinton signed in 1996. This would allow religious organizations to compete for government social service contracts on an equal footing with secular outfits.

Almost no one objects to the first part. Religious groups bear a huge share of the burden for society in aiding the poor, not to mention addicts, alcoholics, prisoners, ex-prisoners, and the homeless. Applauding these efforts and encouraging more people to assist in them may not transform the landscape of the inner city, but it has no apparent downside. Likewise, allowing non-itemizers to deduct charitable contributions is an idea that's easy to like. It cuts against the condescension implicit in the idea of "compassion" by giving people who are themselves not wealthy more leverage to help the disadvantaged. Happily, Bush steered clear of the idea of giving everyone a $500 tax credit for charitable donations. By assuming the full cost of private contributions in this way, government would be making the exercise of compassion essentially free, and hence a bit too easy.


But more complex difficulties beset the charitable choice idea, the policy essence of Bush's proposal. Let's dismiss the familiar (and to my mind tedious) liberal objection that government support for faith-based social programs violates the constitutional principle of separation of church and state. The answers to this complaint are: 1) Government already supports all sorts of religious charities; 2) it's relatively simple to provide secular alternatives for conscientious objectors; and 3) there are things worse than proselytizing, such as poverty. And let's admit for the sake of argument the hypothesis that religious organizations can be more efficient than either government or secular charities when it comes to helping people in various kinds of distress. (There's some evidence to this effect, though it isn't conclusive.) With those issues out of the way, we get to the practical heart of the matter: Is it possible to expand on the success of faith-based organizations and programs with government contracts?

Doubts on this score can be broken down according to what the economist Albert O. Hirschman classified as three basic forms of conservative argument against government social programs in general: futility, perversity, and jeopardy. The futility thesis says government help won't really help. The perversity thesis says government will do the opposite of what it intends. The jeopardy thesis says that in its efforts to accomplish something, government will place other important goals in peril.

DiIulio himself has frankly raised the futility specter in the past. As he put it in a 1999 article, "it remains to be seen how, if at all, local faith-based efforts can be taken to scale in ways that predictably, reliably and cost-effectively cut crime, reduce poverty, or yield other desirable social consequences." In other words, faith-based social programs may be a good that government can't buy more of. Many of these programs depend on the efforts of saintly individuals who make extraordinary sacrifices because of their beliefs. The prototype is DiIulio's friend Eugene Rivers, a charismatic black minister whose work with at-risk juveniles in Boston has been widely heralded. But unfortunately, you can't clone Eugene Rivers. And its not clear that even Rivers himself, whose work depends on intensive personal mentoring, would be able to save more souls if it were easier for his Azusa Church to get federal money.

The perversity objection comes from some to Bush's right who worry not that religion will infect government, but that bureaucracy will undermine religion. Bush supporters Michael Horowitz and Marvin Olasky issued a statement yesterday expressing qualms about their man's proposal. Their basic concern is that the involvement with courts and regulatory agencies will cost churches intensity and integrity. Horowitz, who ran the Office of Management and Budget under President Reagan, points to the unhappy example of nonprofit groups funded by the Great Society, which became less effective as they grew flush with federal dollars. He is particularly troubled by the government fostering institutional dependency by providing a share of "overhead" costs for houses of worship. "We could survive the loss of the independent sector, but it would be devastating to the health and character of the country if we lost the independence of religious communities," Horowitz says.

The jeopardy objection is that faith-based initiatives will detract from other public sector efforts. Bush says he does not see private charity as a replacement for government. But inevitably, more emphasis on the role of the private, religious sector means less emphasis on the public sector. One area where the shift is especially worrisome is welfare reform. Welfare rolls are down some 60 percent since reform legislation passed in 1996. Those who remain on the dole are increasingly the "hard cases," incapable of a smooth transition into the work force. They'll begin to bump up against the bill's five-year time limit this year. As my colleague Mickey Kaus argued back in 1999, Bush's references to faith-based social services as the "next, bold step of welfare reform" reflect a serious misunderstanding about the best way to help these long-term welfare dependents. As governor of Wisconsin, newly appointed Secretary of Health and Human Services Tommy Thompson showed you could help a lot of them with a last-resort public sector job. But the faith-based model flinches at requiring welfare mothers with young children to go to work.

None of this is to say that Bush's faith-based initiative is doomed to failure. But it does underscore a potentially dangerous mismatch of expectations. John DiIulio is an academic empiricist. He has high hopes but knows that the federal government's social experiments often disappoint. Bush, on the other hand, is a believer. He knows that his faith-based idea works even before it has been tried. In the event that the skeptics prove right, it's not going to be easy for the professor to level with the politician. But DiIulio is no dummy. He's signed on with the Bush administration only for six months. That way he can launch his boat and watch to see how it sails from the safety of the shore.

Illustration by Charlie Powell.