Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Obama's Faith-Based Announcement: Faith-Based Reflections

I have been thinking about Mr. Obama’s announcement that he intends not only to continue, but to enhance, the Bush faith-based social services programs. I am not surprised. These programs have great cachet among black evangelicals, and it is to that constituency that this announcement speaks. I think it is possible to develop such programs so that they perform much-needed social services.

At the same time, I think that, as they currently operate, most faith-based social service programs are falling far short of the mark. I wonder if Mr. Obama has thought carefully enough about some of the shortcomings of these programs, as they currently operate.

I addressed some of these issues in my previous posting entitled “Barack Obama and Post-Homophobic Models of Black Leadership” ( As that posting notes, the transfer of many social services to faith-based initiatives in recent years, coupled with a diminution of federal funding of these services, has been disastrous, on the whole.

It has been disastrous primarily because it is a shell-game. I speak from experience. I spent two decades teaching in faith-based historically black universities (HBCUs), in which I saw at close range 1) federal monies flowing into universities from government programs, for which there was dubious to non-existent accounting; 2) faith-based programs sponsored by the university and funded by federal faith-based funding, which did not adequately meet the goals outlined in the programs’ mission statements; 3) the abuse of religious rhetoric and religious ideology to cover over what amounted to plain incompetence and greed on the part of directors and staff of some programs.

In theory, I have nothing against the use of faith-based groups to extend social services the governmental sector has historically provided. I have nothing against funding social services that churches themselves also sometimes provide, in an effort to see these services offered even more widely than they might be if church and government function independently of each other in providing the services.

In practice, however, I find that these programs have not done what they promised to do, when they were implemented. A large part of the problem is not with the programs per se: it is with the shoestring budgets on which they are forced to operate, due to lack of sufficient government funding.

In practice, the transfer of federal social service programs to churches and other faith-based organizations in the Bush period has resulted in radical cuts in much-needed social services in communities already suffering due to cutbacks in federal social services beginning with Reagan. The money provided to faith-based programs in the Bush era is pitifully far from what is needed.

There has also been insufficient scrutiny of how these programs operate and inadequate accounting for funds dispersed. Solely because the groups using the funds are faith-based, they too often receive the benefit of the doubt as to their use of faith-based funding, when accounting procedures and the accomplishments of the program fall short of government expectations. The flow of faith-based social service money to many churches and other faith-based groups has even been a corrupting influence in some of these churches and groups.

If an enhanced faith-based social service initiative under Mr. Obama is to be more effective, it will require much more stringent procedures to assure the proper use of funds by faith-based groups, careful administration of faith-based programs according to best-practice standards, and clear evidence that the programs are actually doing what they say—in short, that they are worth funding, because they are meeting social needs.

Before I outline some considerations I urge Mr. Obama to think further about if he is elected and follows through with his intent to develop faith-based initiatives, I should also note that my reflections depend not only on my work in HBCUs, but in having served on advisory boards for and worked with a number of faith-based programs in recent years, including programs to help those with HIV and to provide services for single teen mothers and their children. I speak out of these experiences, as well, in what I say below.

I would encourage Mr. Obama to think carefully about the following, if he enhances the faith-based social service initiatives of the Bush administration:

1. In order to be effective, faith-based social service programs need much more money than they are currently receiving. The amount disbursed to these programs is woefully inadequate to address effectively the social needs they are currently expected to address. It is a pittance—an insulting pittance designed more to relieve the conscience of a government (and a people, whom the government represents) than to meet the many glaring needs of the least among us.

2. In order to be effective, faith-based social service programs must not be given the benefit of the doubt simply because they are faith-based programs, when it comes to demonstrating their effectiveness and accounting for the monies they receive. There must be much more stringent best-practice government standards setting the mark for these programs. The programs must be held to these standards. They must have bona fide directors and staff, as well as trustworthy governing boards with strong concepts of fiscal integrity and professional decorum, in order to perform the services they are expected to perform.

3. Religion, church, and faith are not automatic assurances of integrity and competence in any area, let alone in the area of social services. Religion cannot be used as a kind of flag to be waved by those supporting these social programs, to justify misuse of funds and/or incompetent provision of social services.

One of the many teaching moments the sexual abuse crisis in the Catholic priesthood in the United States has provided for all Americans—and all U.S. churches, in particular—since its unfolding in the Boston media in 2002 is the recognition that we give far too much latitude to churches in this nation with the soul of a church. We give too much latitude to churches when it comes to the cash-value of their promises to us. We give churches and their leaders the benefit of the doubt. We do not expect churches and their leaders to abuse their authority or to misuse money.

And yet, if the sexual abuse crisis in the Catholic church has taught us anything, it should have taught us that churches and their leaders do abuse and will abuse power and authority, and do misuse money. Along with many other churches, the Catholic church has exceedingly shoddy accounting procedures, in the fiscal sector. No rules, no guidelines, no governmental expectations require churches to disclose fully and accurately how much money they take in and how they use that money.

One of the central revelations of the abuse crisis in the Catholic church is that money—they money of millions of faithful laypersons, parallel to the money provided by taxpayers to the government—is being misused to pay off families of minors that have been abused. No one knows the extent of these pay offs throughout the country. The few indicators we have suggest that they have run into millions, and have occurred in dioceses everywhere in the nation.

Recent studies indicate a pattern of embezzlement of funds in parishes and at the diocesan level in at least a third of American dioceses—and this study touches only a minority of American dioceses. Indeed, news reports reveal that embezzlement is a problem in churches of all denominations across the country. In my little state alone in recent years, the Catholic parish in which I live has announced that a significant amount of money has disappeared from its treasury; the parish’s fiscal manager was responsible. In the town in which I spent my teen years in south Arkansas, a prominent United Methodist church has just revealed that a secretary has been embezzling money for years.

Misuse and misappropriation of funds is always entirely possible in any organization that does not have transparent accounting procedures. There is abundant evidence to suggest that abuses have occurred in groups to which the government has directed faith-based funding. In order for these programs to do what they claim they intend to do—and what our government proclaims they are doing—someone is going to have to bite the bullet and demand that churches and church leaders do what they resist doing: account carefully and scrupulously for the funds they receive, and assure that funds given for faith-based social services actually translate into such services.

4. Faith-based social service funding is particularly attractive to black evangelicals. To an extent that far surpasses the efforts of white evangelical churches, black churches have historically functioned as providers of many social services. They have historically been the backbone of the African-American community, functioning not merely as houses of worship, but as centers for education and voter registration; they have maintained credit unions. They have provided churchgoers countless social services unmet by society at large.

Given this history, as well as the commitment of the black churches to living the gospel through feeding the hungry, healing the sick, etc., it is not surprising that black ministers and black congregations have welcomed faith-based initiatives. These groups have been among the most conspicuous “consumers” of the faith-based programs of the Bush administration.

I would propose, however, the reliance of the black churches on faith-based funding is dangerous to these churches themselves, unless much more careful attention is given to operating rubrics and fiscal responsibility. Historically, the pastor of black churches has been beyond question and beyond reproach. Many African-American pastors exercise an amazing amount of unchecked control in the lives of their congregations.

When these pastors preside over the administration of faith-based programs—and they do, when funding is provided to a church and its programs—they sometimes do so with no questions asked, no checks and balances on their control and disbursement of money. As with the use of funds in the hierarchical and impermeable structures of the Catholic church, the use of funds in many African-American churches is a recipe for disaster. Accounting procedures are as shoddy to non-existent in many African-American churches as they are in the hierarchical and impermeable Catholic church.

In the provision of funds to many African-American faith-based groups, there has often been a tacit assumption on the part of the government that stringent questions cannot be asked about how the funds disbursed are being used. There is a tacit assumption of the entitlement of the African-American community on the part of those disbursing this funding, which is insulting (and damaging) to African-American churches, and which, in the last analysis, reveals an awareness on the part of the government that the money being handed out to African-American churches falls far short of the needs these churches are expected to meet. It is, in a sense, tainted money, given with a bad conscience, and without questions asked regarding how the money is used.

This needs to change, under Mr. Obama. It needs to change if the needs these programs are expected to meet—in the African-American community, above all—are to be met adequately. It also needs to change if these programs are not to be a corrupting influence in black churches, shoring up the authority of pastors who abuse authority, and/or tying black churches to the government in a way that diminishes their independence when it comes to making their own faith-based decisions about their values and commitments.

5. Having made these criticisms of the black churches and the use of faith-based funding that sometimes prevails in black churches, let me hasten to underscore a point my citation of the example of the abuse crisis in the Catholic church is already designed to make: these problems (abuse of pastoral power, abuse of fiscal accounting procedures) are not unique to black churches. They are endemic in American church life. In the context of addressing faith-based social service programs, I am focusing on the black church because African-American churches are largely invested in the faith-based initiative, and are, no doubt, encouraging Mr. Obama to expand this initiative.

In the AIDS social service programs with which I have been associated, I have seen horrendous abuse of pastoral authority by white churches. In one program with which I was closely associated, a Methodist church that happens to be close to where I live was one of the primary players in supporting this program and assisting persons living with HIV and AIDS.

Perhaps because its care teams were large and active, this church also claimed a degree of ownership of the program itself that was astonishing and inappropriate, and which ultimately led to the downfall of the program. The care teams of this church constantly undermined the program’s leaders—in the name of the Lord, of course—and even engaged in nasty rumor-mongering about some of these leaders.

Because these were church folks doing the rumor-mongering—solely because they were church folks (and folks attending a wealthy and prominent church)—they had influence that went far beyond their numbers within the organization. When they succeeded in bending the ear of a key board member, the organization’s fate was sealed. Other board members knew full well the venality, the petty jealousy and outright homophobia, that fed this Methodist church’s attempt to unseat the leaders of this faith-based AIDS initiative. I can recall one member telling me that, the moment he saw members of this care team at a “public hearing” sponsored by the board member listening to the care team, he knew mischief was afoot. Church = corruption, in the (sometime) experience of some of us associated with faith-based social services.

I should also hasten to note that the petty pilfering of funds given to faith-based needs is nothing beside the corporate robbery that goes on daily, about which many of us never raise our voices. White-collar embezzlement affects all of us, through higher prices, diminished wages, lack of confidence in our institutions. Beside that kind of embezzlement, the embezzlement that goes on in many church communities is picayune.

And yet, two wrongs do not make a right. And churches must be held to the standards they preach . . . .

6. Finally, a note about the claim of churches that they must be permitted to engage in employment discrimination and other forms of discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation, if they receive faith-based funding. This claim is not persuasive.

If an Obama administration upholds it, while faith-based programs are expanded, I will protest vigorously. Churches are expected to abide by federal expectations of non-discrimination when it comes to gender and race. Sexual orientation is no different. If Mrs. Obama was sincere in comparing racial discrimination to discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation recently (and I believe she was sincere), then one of the first initiatives we need to expect from an Obama administration is adding sexual orientation to the list of categories on which no organization receiving federal funding can be allowed to discriminate.

The United States is far behind the practice of almost every other Western nation in this regard. When churches in most other Western nations claim the right to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation in areas of hiring, etc., they are politely informed that the society in which they are functioning has a different (a higher) recognition of fundamental human rights. They are invited up to the standard recognized by their society.

And so it must eventually be in the U.S.

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