INTERVIEW

In addition to the people on both sides misusing the available information, you also make two related points. One is that it is hard to study the impact of these grassroots groups for a variety of reasons. But you also note that most of the organizations that are getting money, secular or sectarian, have not had much much study of their effectiveness, either.

I used to ask people to engage in a thought experiment. What would happen tomorrow if you awakened in Philadelphia, and all the community-serving grassroots religious groups were gone? How would you know it? Well you’d know it because a third of your daycares would be gone, a lot of your preschools would be gone, you’d know it because all the folks who were in transitional welfare to work—40 percent of them, roughly—would not have anywhere to go.

Well, then [this thought experiment actually] happened in New Orleans.  The whole town is wiped out, 80 percent is flooded. Who led among the first responders—in addition to U.S. Coast Guard, which was really one of the few government agencies that threw away the book and did good stuff?  Answer: the religious groups. Who is taking the lead in the physical, financial, and human recovery process? Answer: the 900 of the 1,500 congregations that have come back—Catholic charities, the Salvation Army, the Lutheran social services, the Jewish federations. Those are the groups that have really led, and nobody even disputes that.

How many of the literally tens and tens of thousands of government contracts and grants have ever been subjected to an independent performance audit? The answer is well under one tenth of one percent. Where there have been a few, especially in the immediate aftermath of the Government Performance and Results Act of 1993, the findings were either ambiguous or negative, not only with respect to the results of the program—did the people get jobs, did the housing get built—but with respect to mere compliance with the government’s actual performance protocols and administrative protocols.

Now, all of a sudden when a community-serving religious organization in North Philly shows up and says: “Excuse me, we’ve been doing after-school programs for like 25 years, and we’ve got about 300 kids who come, and we’ve got a reading program and we have a teacher who used to work for the public schools, and we’re not using the Bible, because it’s not graded reading material, and we just want to meet in our church basement, and we’ve got a lot more people coming in now so we got a lot more child-only welfare cases. Gosh, the radiator is broken and busted, do you think we could get a $25,000 grant from the local youth and family services agency, which got it from the state, which got it from the federal government?”

NO. Why? “Well, you’re religious and we would need to independently assess …”

I heard that same story in the Bronx, in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, in Boston, in Philly, everywhere I went in the ’90s. I wish I had taken a tape recorder. Now my response to that has been, OK, good. Even though we are having a radically selective attention to this problem, let’s have it. Let’s subject them to that scrutiny. And as we do that, do you think we might want to go back to the people who are getting multi-million dollar—and multi-billion in some cases—multi-year grants?

When we did an audit in 2001, the top 10 grant-getters were the same organizations in each domain of social service, every year for the previous five years, not one of which had been subjected to an independent, systematic performance audit.

 

We’re approaching another presidential election. What’s your view of the prospects for the faith-based idea gaining some headway, and is there a different likelihood if it’s a Republican administration versus a Democratic administration?

I think there is a different likelihood, and in this case the Democrats are more likely than the Republicans to sustain the office and the initiative—probably under a different name, but I hope with the exact mandate and set of responsibilities. Because the Democrats in this field, especially the leading ones, are at the margins at least more open to these kinds of public-private partnerships. They’re more faith-friendly. 

The Republicans this time around are strangely less likely to have it high on their lists. And that may change.

 

Would you ever consider, in a Republican or Democratic administration, stepping back into the role of directing an office on faith-based initiatives?

That question came up [with one of the candidates I’ve advised] and my answer was, “Sure, unless the option to be drawn and quartered is available.”  I don’t think I ever want to be in the limelight or crossfire again, not because I was beaten up and traumatized by it, though I was, but because I know my comparative advantage.

I was a pretty good advocate for faith-based—we got it into the vernacular, we got it onto the public agenda.  Independent of all the pulling and hauling and fireworks and dramatics and so forth in 2001 and the somewhat disappointing record at the national level, 33 state governments now have offices of faith and community initiatives, 12 of which have switched parties and still maintained the office. Over a hundred mayors’ offices have them. So it’s trickled down in a significant way.

Even more important than that reality is the change in the minds of people who are religious leaders, civic leaders in urban America in many of our poorest neighborhoods, who realize that they have an active claim on government if they choose to exercise it. No one has the right to kick them to the curb, and it’s not just for the big religious leaders or people of a particular religious denomination. That they have every bit as much a right, if they so choose, consistent with their faith tradition, to step up and ask for support and government help to do the good civic works that they’re doing in their neighborhoods. That has been my greatest joy.

Nothing begins without individuals, nothing lasts without institutions, right?  So it needs to be institutionalized. I think that the long-term health of the least well-off people in urban America depends on the so-called faith-based social movement gaining even greater legitimacy and respectability and allies and friends than it already has. And I think it already has a lot of them. That’s my story.

Next: Excerpt from Godly Republic

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