In the minds of many Americans, the First Amendment and the doctrine of separation of church and state mean that the government has no business working with religious organizations in any capacity. This assumption—as flawed as it is fervently and widely held—for a long time led government agencies to shy away from any kind of partnership with religious organizations in solving social ills. The consequences of such thinking have been anything but salutary. Prior to World War I, it was taken for granted that feeding and clothing the poor, combating alcoholism, helping the indigent find work and affordable housing, and even combating epidemics were the tasks of private charities rather than the state. With the Depression, the New Deal, and later Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, the U.S. government created a massive welfare bureaucracy dedicated to playing all these roles, leaving religious and secular philanthropies simply to fill in the gaps.
But by the 1990s, it became abundantly clear that there were many social ills the government was poorly suited to solving. A host of well-intentioned programs merely fostered dependency, exacerbated the problems they had sought to alleviate, or created new and unforeseen ones. During his 2000 presidential campaign, George W. Bush became convinced that America’s myriad religious groups could do a much a better job. Where the federal government could have someone fill out a form and then send him a check, a faith-based organization could know people personally and provide a dose of spiritual succor to the impoverished and dislocated. Since government agencies had already concluded that they could accomplish much by providing grants to private institutions and working with them in various ways, why shouldn’t they do the same with religious groups?
The usual answer to that question, on the rare occasions that it was asked, was that to do so would violate the principle of church-state separation. But Bush sought to challenge that assumption. There is in fact no constitutional limitation on the government working with religious organizations that provide charitable services to individuals, so long as they do not discriminate in the provision of those services. That is, a Jewish group can receive a grant to run a kosher soup kitchen if it welcomes Jews and Gentile alike. Second, many religious organizations involved in charitable work are very good at what they do, and it is in the interest of the nation, the United States government, and the people in need themselves that the distributors of government resources be effective and have strong connections with their local communities so as to be aware of the specific interests of those they serve.
After winning the election, Bush put the idea into practice by creating the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives and tapped the political scientist and Democrat John DiIulio to serve as its inaugural director. The office’s premise was simple: there are many organizations in the United States of America doing remarkable charitable work in the areas of food distribution, housing, job training, education, and relief to the poor, among other vital needs. Many of those organizations have an explicitly religious mission, or were founded by churches and other religious entities, but provide comfort and assistance to all comers. To the extent that the federal government sees fit to partner with private charities to offer assistance to its citizens in need, it should not discriminate against faith-based organizations in selecting these partners.
Backing up the office legislatively were the “Charitable Choice” provisions of the 1996 welfare-reform act, passed by a Republican Congress and signed into law by a Democratic president. DiIulio’s office produced a useful report on how and to what extent each of the grant generating agencies were interacting with faith-based providers. Furthering the bipartisan nature of Bush’s vision, DiIulio would later be replaced by Jim Towey, who had worked for both the Democratic governor of Florida Lawton Chiles and the Republican senator Mark Hatfield. More importantly, Towey had also worked for Mother Theresa, and recently wrote a book about that experience, To Love and Be Loved.
Despite the Democratic hostility toward the very idea of supporting faith-based initiatives during the Bush years, Barack Obama chose to keep the office rather than eliminating it after winning the presidency. But neither that decision, nor the bipartisan efforts that went into the office’s founding, prevented it from becoming a political football, as each successive administration has tried to amend the faith-based office in line with its partisan ends. The Obama and then the Biden administration took out the word “community” from the office’s title and renamed it the “White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships.” President Obama also created a new Advisory Council for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships to provide guidance on cooperation with religious institutions. Donald Trump, meanwhile, called it the “White House Faith and Opportunity Initiative.” These frequent name changes do not in themselves reflect significant shifts in the nature of the office so much as the fact that each administration has put its own stamp on what the office does.
As is so often the case in the federal government, administrations signaled their varying policy views about the faith-based office through bureaucratic reshufflings. Some presidents made the office part of the Domestic Policy Council or subordinate to it, others thought it should have a direct link to the president. When Towey succeeded DiIulio, he was made a deputy assistant to the president rather than an assistant to the president, a downgrade meaningless to outsiders but carefully noted within the White House and the bureaucracy. This positional shift set the tone for many of the future changes regarding the office’s name, purview, and status within the executive branch. Towey, unsurprisingly, believes that the director “has to be able to walk into the Oval Office,” in order for the initiative to be successful. The Trump administration took the additional step of having the office report through the office of public engagement. This step highlighted the office’s outreach role, but may have signaled a diminished policy role.
Despite these various bureaucratic maneuvers, the core idea behind the faith-based office has not changed since Bush first came up with it: that the United States government should not discriminate against religious organizations in selecting partners for social-welfare initiatives. But the various technical changes and amendments added by each successive administration have made it so that the office now resembles a legal shop trying to establish the church-state vision of the administration that created it rather than an effective tool for getting the most out of the partnerships between government and religion. This is unfortunate, as an office of faith-based initiatives has more promise than that.
With the midterms behind us and potential presidential candidates beginning to think about their 2024 campaign agendas, calling for a revitalized faith-based office could have political benefits for candidates from both sides of the aisle, while bringing into public conversation an idea with tangible benefits for the nation.
This revitalization would have to begin with an acknowledgement of some of the greatest social problems America faces, including drug addiction, the collapse of the family, and lack of trust in one another. What unites these ills is that religion—a driver of intact families, a sense of purpose in life, and cohesive communities—can play a role in remedying them. Religion does this best through quiet work at the local level, rather than loud political pronouncements on the national stage. And faith-based social-service providers can do that work because they are local, based on human relationships, and effective, in stark contrast to gargantuan, bureaucratic, ineffective, and decidedly non-spiritual federal agencies.
Among other things, the faith-based office can work with houses of worship to guide them to resources, encourage them in their own voluntarism, and explain both opportunities with and changes to federal policy. It can also use its amplifying voice to stage events, both with the president as well as with senior officials and elected representatives, that celebrate and highlight the good works of a diverse set of faith-based and community-based organizations.
In all of this, the faith-based office must remember that its goal is not to provide social services, but to encourage religious organizations that are grounded in local communities and have the capacity to improve individual lives in fulfilling their missions. The role, to use a martial metaphor, is both offensive and defensive: offensive, to amplify the reach and the appeal of faith-based institutions as not only acceptable but in many cases preferred social-service providers; and defensive, to make sure that bureaucratic inertia or activist groups hostile to religious participation do not prevent religious associations from serving as trusted partners of the federal government.
In addition to the good charitable work that such a partnership between state and churches could bring, it can also embody and exemplify the connections between freedom and virtue. Within a liberal regime where the state has but a limited role in the moral cultivation of its citizens, religion plays an essential part in nurturing the virtues necessary for a democratic society to flourish.
Another task to which the faith-based office is well-suited is to partner with religious organizations in rebuilding trust in both the government and in religion itself. Working with churches and other religious institutions on vaccines and blood drives can help quiet some of the noise about public-health initiatives. Having a priest or a rabbi encourage community members to take steps to advance their health and that of their communities can be far more effective than having the same message come from public-health officials, who seem to many like scolds at best and power-hungry bureaucrats at worst. In the same vein, religious institutions can provide lifesaving services while steering clear of the politics that intrudes on too much of public health these days.
A revitalized faith-based office should build on the fact that America has more churches per square mile than any other type of establishment. As the University of Pennsylvania’s Professor Ram Cnaan puts it, it is “ostrich-like” to engage in projects like alleviating hunger without leveraging that uniquely American feature. Every year, the government spends over a trillion dollars on programs for the poor; one job of the faith-based office is to ensure that this money is spent in a way that takes that central fact into account.
The faith-based office should work with religious groups to highlight not what government can do for faith-based organizations, but what faith-based organizations can do for America. As one Bush-era faith-based director, Jay Hein, told me, faith-based institutions, along with other, secular forms of voluntarism, should “serve as a Toquevillian engine to inspire, celebrate, and empower private actors pursuing the public good.”
Finally, the faith-based office can be a voice within the federal bureaucracy for religious organizations, and a referee to ensure that these organizations are not only treated fairly as sources of social services, but also not overburdened with extraneous governmental requirements. Both are significant concerns. On the fair-treatment front, the evangelical leader Richard Cizik has described his hope for the faith-based office as an entity that can help ensure “equality of treatment toward religious social-service providers in America.” As Cizik explained, “What we believe equality of treatment means is not the preference for evangelical social-service providers, but . . . that they’re treated the same as secular service providers—equal competitors for federal dollars to be able to dispense services to the needy.”
On the other side of the equation, undue federal burdens can drive away religious charities even if the treatment is fair in the way Cizik describes. As Richard Land has put it, with a bit of biblical wordplay: “Whenever you take the government shekels, sooner or later come the government’s shackles.” These two very real concerns regarding equality of treatment and undue burdens have the potential to reduce religious participation in the distribution of social services. To the extent that the faith-based office can serve as an advocate within the bureaucracy for mitigating those concerns, it could help ensure that the United States provide carefully targeted benefits to those most in need.
The faith-based office must strive to do these things without getting involved in divisive political debates. There are of course intense disagreements on rights of conscience, wedding-cake baking, and assisted suicide, but an administration’s positions on those issues should be sorted out via the Domestic Policy Council, while the faith-based office must remain disinterested. Too much political involvement, such as President Obama having his faith-based director Melissa Rogers at a meeting with black pastors to promote the Affordable Care Act, or President Biden having Rogers participate in an economic briefing to supporters the Friday before the mid-term election, undermines the goal of reclaiming the role of religion in a divided America. A new, reset faith-based office should be depoliticized and focused on enlisting religious organizations in the effort to help the less fortunate.
These principles—highlighting the role of religion in alleviating social ills, encouraging religiously affiliated charities to work with the government to provide social services and information about those services, helping them to rebuild trust in broken communities, making sure that these charities have a voice in the bureaucracy, and doing it all in a depoliticized manner—can go a long way towards both reclaiming the role of the faith-based office and reclaiming the role of religion in American life. By leveraging our country’s vast religious network and encouraging a strong partnership with the federal government, the faith-based office can do a great deal of good for both religion and for America.
Religion has taken some serious hits in recent years, not least from the scandals swirling around the Catholic Church, but a significant partnership between religion and government to alleviate social ills can remind Americans of the role religion can and should play in democracy, and help millions of suffering Americans in the process. The 2024 presidential candidates should take this agenda seriously, and the winner of the next election should take steps to revitalize the faith-based initiative in 2025 and beyond.