Mark Chaves has a revealing analysis of the impact of faith-based initiatives on congregational interest and participation in various social services. While cooperation with religious and other community groups as an emphasis of Bush's compassionate conservatism had always been a contentious culture-war item, I've never understood the hostility towards it. My own experiences with Prison Fellowship Ministries and in local churches involved with community services has been quite the opposite of concerns that these initiatives are any sort of infringement on the public sphere or undue cultural imperialism on the part of religious groups. In addition, the work of faith groups reveals the limitations of a partisan narrative whereby those who advocate for private charity and service are necessarily uninterested or illiberal concerning social welfare.
That said, the study reveals some underwhelming conclusions about the impact of faith-based initiatives on congregational service. It doesn't seem that much has changed since 1998. There is an increased amount of interest in pursuing various community services (and this isn't nothing), but the actual level of service has stayed about the same.
It would be worth considering what this means for Obama's faith-based initiative policies. While Obama supports the continuation of Bush's legacy here, the big questions of the past year have involved how Obama might change discriminatory hiring or proselytism rules. A lot may hinge on who exactly will be affected by any such change... if the controversy over enforcing certain norms on Catholic charities in D.C. is any indicator of the more general future, then the plateau that is faith-based contributions to social services may not be able to sustain certain objectionable adjustments to policy. On the other hand, Obama's administration may begin to 1) make good on the increased interest in faith-based community service carried in by the Bush administration, or 2) attract new religious groups to faith-based service that were not previously inclined (groups that might have had a problem with the Bush policy but are more friendly to Obama's suggested changes to the system).
Only time will tell what comes of all this, and probably other matters will keep public conversation uninterested in this particular domestic issue for the time being. And that might not be all bad, given how asinine the conversation on faith-based initiatives has tended to be thus far. With any luck cooler heads will prevail... much has been made of how Obama has continued Bush administration legacies, and this is one point of continuity for which we can actually be quite thankful.
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