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Faith-Based Initiatives?
Why Not Give Grace a Chance -
Feb. 2, 2001

By James L. Hirsen, J.D., Ph.D.
contributor to

Consistent with a campaign theme, President George W. Bush is taking a fresh approach in order to address some pressing social needs in America. Through an executive order, Mr. Bush established a new office in the White House, which will deal with faith-based community initiatives. A second executive order directed five cabinet-level agencies to create committees for the specific purpose of working with these religious groups.

Bush's proposals have produced a predictable volley of criticism, most notably from the Americans United for Separation of Church and State. The group now threatens to file a lawsuit to stop the plan.

In an attempt to eliminate a whole host of public ills, tax dollars have poured out over the years with scant results. On the other hand, the track record of religious organizations has been quite impressive. Faith-based groups have had tremendous success in providing assistance for those in need of childcare, shelter and drug and alcohol rehabilitation. What distinguishes government aid from that of faith-based organizations is not the service itself, but rather the overall effectiveness of delivery.

Faith-based programs consistently exceed government's rate of success, but at about half the cost. In the area of drug and alcohol rehabilitation, a typical government program boasts when it is able to achieve a success rate that reaches 10%. Teen Challenge, a similar faith-based rehabilitation program, has achieved results of close to 80%.

One of the reasons that private faith-based programs have done so well has a great deal to do with the nature of the mission. Individuals who work with religious affiliates are likely to differ from their counterparts in the secular sector with regard to motivation. Monetary incentive in exchange for labor is rarely present. Even if workers are paid, there is a factor whose significance is difficult to calculate - the urge to please the Higher Authority. This desire has shaped the attitude and behavior of men and women throughout the ages.

If private secular organizations are allowed to bid on contracts to operate prisons, build roads, and provide water and power, should not faith-based organizations be permitted to compete as well?

This is exactly what the 1996 Welfare Reform Act, which was passed by Congress and signed by the previous president, envisioned. Within the bill was a section called "charitable choice," which incorporated the principle that government should not discriminate against religious groups when it implements its programs and interacts with private organizations. Although it was never properly exercised, this provision nevertheless exists, which enabled the Bush administration to advance its agenda without initial cooperation from Congress.

However, there are some legislative changes that would serve to enhance the effectiveness of the program. Presently, tax filers who do not itemize cannot claim a charitable deduction. The Bush administration wants to modify the system to allow such a deduction. Additionally, on the wish-list of legislative changes are some charitable tax credits that would permit citizens to give a portion of what they owe in state taxes, directly to private and faith-based institutions. These adjustments could work hand in hand with the 1996 legislation to increase the impact of this kind of privatization.

If properly executed, faith-based initiatives should result in spending reduction, greater accountability and smaller government. And something even more profound just may occur - a providential increase in reports of lives forever altered because a broad-minded approach was used to facilitate the rendering of transcendent care by people of faith. It will be a time of rejoicing when barren stones are replaced by fishes and loaves.

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James L. Hirsen, J.D., Ph.D.

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