Presidents of both parties unite in recognizing the good that religious groups do

Written by William C. Duncan

February 17, 2021

A rush to undo executive orders of the previous administration has become a feature of presidential transitions. For example, on Jan. 28, President Joe Biden revoked a policy that prevented U.S. foreign aid from being used to promote abortion. This action reversed an early Trump administration order reinstating the policy which had, in turn, reversed an Obama administration order which had reversed a George W. Bush reversal of a Clinton reversal of a policy created in the Reagan administration.

More simply, Republican presidents since Reagan have enacted the policy and Democratic presidents have revoked it in regular succession.

On Feb. 14, however, Biden did something that all Republican and Democratic administrations since President George W. Bush have done – he re-established the Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. It is no coincidence that this public enterprise focused on the institution of religion has been a source of bipartisan unity despite broad social divisions elsewhere.

On its face, the policy this represents – facilitating the participation of religious charities in government aid programs – would seem to be the kind of “culture war” issue that would fuel partisan response, but it has not.

While we cannot know the motives of each administration, there is a case to be made that each reflects a wise policy choice.

Biden noted one reason for this when he said that “leaders of different faiths and backgrounds … are the frontlines of their communities in crisis.” This is an important reality. When people are in trouble, they look to those closest to them – family and neighbors, and often their religious congregations. These congregations are highly involved in providing these services. In fact, nearly all Americans who attend religious services do so at churches that are actively providing for a variety of social needs.

So, as a matter of simple logistics, collaborating with faith-based groups to provide social services makes sense since they are already involved in that work.

Biden also tweeted that faith-based organizations are “essential” to addressing economic and public health challenges. This may point to another reality – that religiously motivated organizations make an enormous financial contribution to providing social services, reflecting many billions of dollars.

The contributions of religious groups are essential not just quantitatively, but qualitatively as well.

President Donald Trump suggested this in establishing his administration’s version of the faith-based partnership. At the time, he said: “In solving the many, many problems and our great challenges, faith is more powerful than government.”

President Barack Obama made a similar point when he established the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships in 2009:

No matter how much money we invest or how sensibly we design our policies, the change that Americans are looking for will not come from government alone. There is a force for good greater than government. It is an expression of faith, this yearning to give back, this hungering for a purpose larger than our own, that reveals itself not simply in places of worship, but in senior centers and shelters, schools and hospitals.

This qualitative element is critical to understanding the good religious charities can do.

As the two prior presidents noted, faith motivates people to do things that they may not do (or not with as much commitment or on so large a scale) for any other reason. Implied in this statement is that the nature of the service motivated by faith is different than that provided by government organizations. Obama’s statement points to the personal nature of the services and that they are provided in a variety of settings and on an individual basis.

To these observations, we could add that the difference religions make comes not only from the motive of the religious charity, but from the intended result. It is meant not only to provide temporary care but to change the giver and recipient – to encourage the former to look outside themselves and to transform the latter, so that the assistance can have a longer-lasting effect. Ideally, this transformation turns the recipient into a future giver, enriching society iteratively.

Of course, many people with no religious faith provide heroic service. Their contributions are also essential, as the various presidential initiatives have recognized.

Religious service, though, is different in kind and must be included for a really holistic, effective and permanent response to social needs. And importantly, government cannot undermine the religious mission of faith-based charities through regulation or law and yet expect they will still be as effective as ever in meeting people’s needs. When you undermine a person’s motivation for making a difference, you make them less effective difference-makers.

That is an article of faith that merits no reversal.

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