Charitable Choice and Conservatives

I first thought about posting on this topic when I saw this line on Dynamist Blog:

Publicly disapproving of gays separates [evangelical Protestants] from popular culture–and, hence, reinforces religious commitment–while exacting little personal toll.

Then Monday the Bush White House showed more of its true colors, as demonstrated by a few key lines from a Washington Post article on the incident:

H. James Towey, director of the White House’s Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, has stirred up a pot of trouble by suggesting that pagans don’t care about the poor… “I haven’t run into a pagan faith-based group yet, much less a pagan group that cares for the poor!” Towey wrote. “Once you make it clear to any applicant that public money must go to public purposes and can’t be used to promote ideology,” he wrote, “the fringe groups lose interest. Helping the poor is tough work, and only those with loving hearts seem drawn to it.”

Rather than waste words deflating the obvious silliness, let’s look at some research findings that relate to the charitable choice movement.

The conservative Christian rhetoric is that churches and faith-based groups have been unfairly barred from receiving federal funds to help the poor. This is allegedly a factor in the alleged failure of the war on poverty, because we are missing an opportunity to harness the power of personal transformation that religious groups can provide to the poor – because they actually care about people, while bureaucrats do not.

The Nonprofit Sector Research Fund put out a working paper, summarized here (“Congregations and Social Services: What They Do, How They Do It, and With Whom” by Mark Chaves and William Tsitos), that studied the charitable activities of church congregations. Since the rhetoric is that religiosity is the reason groups do more “holistic service delivery that provides long-term solutions to individuals’ problems,” they figured they would take a look at a nationally representative sample of congregations and see what they were up to.

Their main finding:

Congregations are much more likely to participate in or support programs directed at short-term, emergency needs than programs which involve personal and intensive face-to-face interaction or holistic attention to cross-cutting problems.

What they also found, which isn’t in the online summary, was that mainline Protestant congregations are more likely to engage in “holistic” services than are conservative Protestant congregations. Mainline Protestant congregations also do more by any measure than do their conservative counterparts, and theologically liberal congregations of any flavor do more than their theologically conservative counterparts.

So my question: is the charitable choice movement a way for conservatives to look like they care about the poor “while exacting little personal toll”? The President’s conservative followers aren’t exactly jumping into the hard work that Towey describes. Their churches are less likely to do the kinds of services they laud as examples, and their churches mostly do less for the poor.

I think we’ve been had. Again.

2 thoughts on “Charitable Choice and Conservatives

  1. rockstarme

    Could not agree more. When I heard the “Faith Based Initiatives” idea I almost gagged…seemed like just one more way he could funnel $$$ into friendly pockets to me.

    Christ I miss Clinton.

  2. JPed

    On Friday, a story came out in the Milwaukee paper ( that is quite disheartening. The Catholic bishop of La Crosse, WI, forbade a church-based AIDS ministry from collecting money from an annual AIDS walk, due to the fact that some groups which participate “promote homosexuality”. More hearteningly (?),later letters to the editor have expressed the dismay of many (including many Catholics) at this bishop’s stance, but it is just one more example that “conservative” does not equal “compassionate”. Of course, “liberal” doesn’t either, but that’s another conversation.

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