Faith-Based Initiatives: Do They Work?

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One of the many criticisms leveled at George W. Bush by atheists and secular free thinkers was his tendency to favor “Faith-Based Initiatives” as a means to solve social problems such as substance abuse, physical abuse, homelessness, criminal reform and recidivism, and so on. During the Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives National Conference on June 26, 2008, Bush was introduced by the Chicano Federation’s Edith Espinoza:

How beautiful was that? From being a homeless mother of two to introducing the President of the United States. There has to be a higher power. I love being with members of the armies of compassion, foot soldiers in helping make America a more hopeful place. Every day you mend broken hearts with love. You mend broken lives with hope. And you mend broken communities with countless acts of extraordinary kindness.

For Bush and others in the political mainstream, Faith-Based Organizations (FBOs) and Faith-Based Initiatives (FBIs) were presented as a viable and efficient means to a social ends. These organizations were, and are, given preferential favor and attention, with the assumption that they exceed secular organizations’ ability to provide the same or similar services. There is also the implied assumption that these organizations are moralistically the right choice since they’re religious in foundation. And not just any religion. These organizations are predominantly Christian with just a few exceptions.

But conservative politicos aren’t the only ones heralding the benefits of FBOs. During his campaign, Barack Obama made a speech promoting faith-based initiatives to which he managed to garner criticism from both sides of the issue: he’s still clearly in favor or using FBOs to address social problems; but he also sees some limitations that should be placed upon how they are funded. He doesn’t believe, for instance, that a federally funded FBO should mandate acceptance of its religion in order to receive services. This, it would seem, is contrary to what many faith-based programs contain in their curricula, since many include “acceptance of God into the heart” and relinquishment of one’s “self to God” as core methods of overcoming substance abuse or adversities such as homelessness.

Since Bush created the Office of Faith-Based Community Initiatives, government funding to FBOs has increased by 10%. Interestingly enough, CARE, a secular non-governmental agency (NGO) that has been sending aid to developing nations for decades had its funding from the government cut. Republican Senator Rick Santorum alleged that they were not respecting the core values faith-based groups by allowing their aid to favor secular groups.

Meanwhile, the government is generating newsletters and hiring liaisons to get information into the hands of decision-makers who work in faith-based groups on how to take advantage of grants. The Bush administration also funded additional government offices which work within existing government agencies like the Departments of Agriculture, Commerce, and Veteran’s Affairs as well as the Small Business Administration, and the Agency for International Development.

Weren’t the Republicans supposed to be against big government? Perfectly good agencies and departments now have increased funding and probably personnel to promote faith-based initiatives within these agencies.

Do FBOs actually work?
There are many, many different types of faith-based services that target various groups. Among the most notable perhaps is Alcoholics Anonymous which includes a 12-step program that demands the person receiving service to accept a particular notion of god -the Christian god. It doesn’t matter if you’re a drunk Arab or Navajo, or just an atheist, if you want to complete AA, you’ll need to admit your shortcomings to God and beg him to remove these shortcomings.

The efficacy of AA, however, has been shown to be poor. AA brags that anyone that completes their 12-steps is successful, but they fail to count the vast majority who do not.

This seems to be the same fallacious trend in all attempts I made to find outcomes of service delivery for faith-based organizations: they counted only those participants who complete their programs and exclude from their metrics anyone who is kicked out, quits, fails, etc.

I’m still looking for outcomes. I’ve scoured some obvious journals and government websites. Tried Google for search terms like “faith based service delivery outcomes” and the like. All with low results. There is a lot of discourse on how to measure and the importance of measuring, but I’ve found no data as yet. As an interesting aside, the website to the Office of Faith Based and Community Initiatives ( appears to be down since March 2008.

The funding of FBOs in the manner they are is fundamentally wrong. This practice didn’t begin with George W. Bush, but rather Bill Clinton. Bush did, however, set the Executive Order in motion that would effectively remove any check and balance from funding Christian organizations who are willing to proselytize and witness to those in need of services.  Obama has stated several times that he’ll ensure that FBOs that receive funding won’t be able to do this, but if the playing field is intended to be fair, why bother with “faith-based inititives” to begin with. Why not just be willing to fund charities with sound proposals and continue to fund those with proven outcomes regardless of their “faith?”


Ebaugh, Helen Rose; et al (2008). Where’s the Religion? Distinguishing Faith-Based from Secular Social Service Agencies. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 42 (3), 411-426.

Hula, Richard; Jackson-Elmoore, Cynthia; Reese, Laura (2007). Mixing God’s Work and the Public Business: A Framework for the Analysis of Faith-Based Service Delivery. Review of Policy Research, 24 (1), 67-89.

Wuthnow, Robert; Hackett, Conrad; Hsu, Becky Yang (2004). The Effectiveness and Trustworthiness of Faith-Based and Other Service Organizations: A Study of Recipients’ Perceptions. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 43 (1), 1-17.

Fischer, Robert L. (2004). The Devil is in the Details: Implementing Secular Outcome Measurement Methods in Faith-Based Organizations. Nonprofit Management & Leadership, 15 (1), 25-40.

Gibelman, Margaret; Gelman, Sheldon R. (2002). Should We Have Faith in Faith-Based Social Services? Rhetoric Versus Realistic Expectations. Nonprofit Management & Leadership, 13 (1), 49-65.

Washington Post (2008). Faith-Based Obama. Editorial in the Washington Post, found online at:

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