The Magazine

Faith, Hope, and .  .  .

The hand of God in the social safety net.

May 24, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 34 • By MARTIN MORSE WOOSTER
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Faith, Hope, and .  .  .

John J. Dilulio Jr., director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, 2001

God’s Economy

Faith-Based Initiatives
and the Caring State
by Lew Daly
Chicago, 344 pp., $37.50

George W. Bush entered the White House in 2001 determined to implement, as the keystone of his administration’s domestic policy, a “faith-based initiative” in which the government would ally with religious poverty-fighting organizations in a new effort to help the poor climb up the social ladder. Such an effort, he insisted, would show that his administration would practice “compassionate conservatism,” a more humane and less mean-spirited form of conservatism.

“In every instance where my administration sees a responsibility to help people,” Bush had declared in a 1999 speech, “we will look first to faith-based organizations, charities, and community groups that have shown their ability to save and change lives. .  .  . We will rally the armies of compassion in our communities to fight a very different war against poverty and hopelessness.” 

But like most of the Bush administration’s domestic policy, the faith-based initiative didn’t accomplish very much. The Department of Health and Human Services’s Compassion Capital Fund annually doles out about $60 million in pilot grants to religious nonprofits, but that was the only new source of funding created in the Bush years. Sociologists Mark Chaves of Duke and Bob Wineburg of the University of North Carolina at Greensboro looked at data from the National Congregations Survey, a large religious social survey that, in 1998 and 2006-7, quizzed about 1,500 congregations about their practices. The survey found increased interest among congregations surveyed in fighting poverty; the number of congregations having a guest speaker from a social service organization rose from 22.2 percent in 1998 to 30.6 percent in 2006-7. But the survey also found no increases in the number of congregations that received government funding, engaged in social service work, or had a paid staff member who spent at least one-quarter of his time helping the poor.

Surprisingly, Barack Obama has continued the faith-based initiative. But Institutional Religious Freedom Alliance director Stanley Carlson-Thies, who worked on the faith-based initiative in the first Bush term, notes that while the Bush administration tried to learn from successful faith-based poverty fighters, the Obama administration appears to be using the faith-based office as a way to convince independent Christian and Jewish nonprofits to follow the administration’s agenda.

“The attitude is, ‘We’re the government, doing wonderful things, you can come join us,” he recently told the Washington Post.

But suppose the Obama administration were to court religious charities as actively as the Bush administration did during its first term? You could come up with a policy supporting this position—say, “compassionate liberalism.” What would such a doctrine be like? Lew Daly provides an answer here. Daly, a senior fellow at Demos, has a bold agenda: to convince liberals who ignore or hate religion that faith-based organizations should be their allies in an effort to dramatically expand the welfare state. He wants to unite leftists who fear capitalism and social conservatives who are skeptical of the market in a grand coalition against antireligious liberals and market-oriented conservatives. His ultimate goal is to bring European conservatism—and European-style Christian democracy—to America.

In many ways, Daly cuts across left/right boundaries in the way that Christopher Lasch did 30 years ago—except that Daly is angrier, more doctrinaire, and less interesting than Lasch was. His funding also cuts across traditional lines. His principal benefactor is the Schumann Center for Media and Democracy, a liberal foundation controlled by Bill Moyers. But Daly also got money from the Kohler Family Fund, a leading source of funding for social conservatives.


Daly advances his argument in several ways. A large chunk of God’s Economy is an amazingly detailed outsider’s account of the efforts of about 25 conservatives in the mid-to-late 1990s to create the ideas that ultimately became “compassionate conservatism.” This section will be intensely interesting to the writers quoted at length in God’s Economy, but others may wonder why Daly bothered. His most serious argument is an analysis of important Roman Catholic and Dutch Calvinist thinkers whom Daly sees as his intellectual ancestors. Daly is right to focus attention on these thinkers, including Popes Leo XIII and Pius XI and Holland’s Abraham Kuyper, for the ideas they created a century ago have consequences for our time.

The Catholic Church has long been concerned about government interference in church governance and teaching. Some popes saw the growth of the welfare state in the 19th century as a threat to the services the church has historically provided in aiding the poor and educating the young. In 1891, Pope Leo XIII issued an encyclical that elaborated on the idea of “subsidiarity”— that there were limits to state power and that decisions about individuals should be delegated to the lowest level possible.

As government power expanded in the 20th century, the church continued to insist on a boundary between church and state. Faced with the totalitarian views of Benito Mussolini (who famously argued, “all within the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the state”), Pope Pius XI responded with his 1931 encyclical Quadragesimo Anno, which reiterated and refined Pope Leo XIII’s concerns. But under the doctrine of subsidiarity, the protections that families and churches had against the state are not rights, but privileges the state could take away if commands were disobeyed. As the German solidarist Johannes Messner explained, the doctrine of subsidiarity teaches that the state could control families and churches whenever it desired, as long as such control was limited to “providing help for the individuals and the lesser communities so that they are enabled to fulfill their essential tasks in life in self-responsibility and self-determination.” 

In the Netherlands, the Calvinist politician Abraham Kuyper came up with similar arguments as a result of a 50-year battle to determine whether Dutch education should be secular or religious. Kuyper created the Anti-Revolutionary party, and served as Holland’s prime minister from 1901 to ’05, on a platform of “sphere sovereignty”—namely that state, family, and churches were “spheres” with independent powers the state had to respect.  Kuyper’s efforts ensured that Dutch schools are state-run, but with Catholics and Protestants running schools with some independence over religious teaching. 

Perhaps the most lasting legacy of subsidiarity is that a secular version is part of European Union law, thanks to Christian Democrats who dominated European politics in the late 1940s. Those Christian Democrats, particularly in West Germany and Holland, created a system whereby welfare is largely administered by nominally independent, nominally religious, state-funded, quasi-governmental organizations. Daly wishes that Christian Democracy could be implemented in the United States. He applauds the Germans for creating a welfare state with “a centralized, consultative apparatus for policy development, bearing little resemblance to Washington’s fragmented policy environment.”

If the Democrats want government to do more to help struggling communities, there is no better strategy to build support for such aid than enlisting smaller faith-based providers in the delivery of social services, because this will create a new class of stakeholders in the welfare state and a new source of legitimacy for social spending.

But won’t government control follow government dollars? Evangelicals who are rightly concerned about this issue (particularly Marvin Olasky) say that a better way to help the poor would be to expand charitable tax deductions than increase government subsidies to faith-based groups. Daly doesn’t really address this question because he is far more interested in political philosophy than public policy. God’s Economy has a great deal on the ideas of the 19th-century legal reformer Otto von Gierke and nothing on how poverty-fighting groups might deal with the federal government in the 21st century. For example, he says nothing about how such quasi-governmental nonprofits as Catholic Charities and Lutheran Social Services dealt with the Bush administration, even though these organizations most closely resemble the German and Dutch groups he admires.

What would welfare under European-style subsidiarity rules be like? The Economist provided one clue in a recent article describing the experiences of the Romeike family in Germany, who were fined 12,000 euros and allowed to emigrate to America because they wanted to teach their children at home. The Germans banned homeschooling as a result of a 2006 ruling by the European Court of Human Rights that declared, under the doctrine of subsidiarity, that “schools represented society .  .  . and it was in the children’s interest to become part of that society. The parents’ right to raise their offspring did not go so far as to deprive their children of the social experience of school.”

Would Americans want to live in a country where subsidiarity was the law? Should successful poverty-fighting groups trade their freedom for a steady flow of federal grants and contracts?

God’s Economy is an exercise in political theory that will not change minds. But Daly is right to remind us that the roles that faith-based charities and the government should play in aiding the poor remain undefined—even after eight compassionately conservative George W. Bush years.


Martin Morse Wooster, director and senior fellow at the Capital Research Center, is the author of The Great Philanthropists and the Problem of ‘Donor Intent.’




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