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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.

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