The U.S. and Faith-Based Social Initiatives

HDS Book and Related Event Address the Promises and Perils

As debate flurries around President George W. Bush's establishment of a federal office of faith-based and community action, Who Will Provide? The Changing Role of Religion in American Social Welfare , a recently published collection of essays that derives from an interfaculty seminar organized by Harvard Divinity School, explores the opportunities—and the dangers—of government support of faith-based initiatives. 

On February 15, 2001, the colloquium "President Bush's Faith-Based Initiative: How Should Religious Leaders Respond?" was held in the Sperry Room of Andover Hall at HDS, sponsored by the Center for the Study of Values in Public Life. The event featured a talk by E. J. Dionne, Washington Post columnist and a senior fellow in government studies at the Brookings Institution. Dionne recently edited the book What's God Got to Do With the American Experiment? with John J. DiIulio, the political scientist who has been chosen by President Bush to head the federal Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. Also participating in the HDS event will be a panel of scholars who will discuss the implications of this Bush initiative.

President Bush has signaled that he is serious about promoting faith-based initiatives from the federal level," said Brent Coffin, one of the editors of Who Will Provide? and co-director of the joint program on religion and public life sponsored jointly by Harvard Divinity School's Center for the Study of Values in Public Life and the Kennedy School of Government's Hauser Center for Nonprofit Organizations. "What this new federal office and director will really mean for public policy remains to be seen. Government support of faith-based programs can raise great opportunities and possibilities, but can also raise great dangers." 

The other panel participants were Coffin and the other two editors of Who Will Provide? : Mary Jo Bane, a professor at the Kennedy School and former Assistant Secretary for Children and Families (1993-1996), and Ronald Thiemann , a professor of theology and religion and society at Harvard Divinity School.

Who Will Provide? (Westview Press) is the product of an interfaculty seminar that was organized in 1996 under the auspices of HDS's Center for the Study of Values in Public Life. More than 25 scholars from seven Harvard schools and departments met regularly over three years to discuss changes in welfare laws and institutional welfare strategies and, beyond that, to explore the moral obligations in this regard of institutions and members of society. The group welcomed the opportunity for changes in the law so that the focus of nationwide debate would shift to actual conditions of poverty and the plight of the working poor. But many participants shared a concern that "charitable choice" provisions embody a dangerous assumption that local communities, and especially religious groups, can alone fill the breach left by less government involvement. 

As Coffin and Bane's introduction to Who Will Provide? points out, bringing the talents and missions of religious communities to society's larger table is welcome, because religious motivation has often generated models of service that are more personal and more respectful than other models. But the religious communities cannot go it alone. Coffin and Bane point out that if social needs are "dumped" at the doorsteps of churches, synagogues, and mosques, religious communities will no longer be able to do what they do best. "The promise of public religion cannot be separated from its perils," Bane and Coffin conclude. Among the perils they name are that religious communities may serve only their own members, may reinforce exclusion, or in forming new partnerships with other organizations and government may lose their religious identities or prophetic moral voices. 

The book and the February 15 discussion are bringing a new voice to the debate. As James Carroll commented in his January 23 Boston Globe column, which carried the headline "Can a compassionate society leave charity to the churches?": "The Harvard volume, in transcending the left-right divide, recognizes the often neglected fact that the common good of a truly humane society has a spiritual basis of which markets know nothing—a fact that becomes increasingly important as society redefines itself around the needs of those same markets."