When Stephen V. Monsma—formerly a political scientist at Pepperdine University and now a research fellow at the Paul B. Henry Institute for the Study of Christianity and Politics at Calvin College—completed his four-year study of 500 welfare-to-work programs in four cities (Chicago, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, and Dallas), he concluded that "much of conventional wisdom was wrong" about religious organizations. He talked about his stereotype-defying findings with senior associate editor Agnieszka Tennant.

What fallacy does your study correct?

It's that mainline Protestants are more active in social service programs than evangelicals—and that evangelicals merely serve their own congregations and are more concerned with evangelism than with social welfare programs. I found the opposite to be true: Of the welfare-to-work programs in the four cities that I studied, there were more evangelical programs than mainline Protestant programs.

How many programs were faith-based, both mainline and evangelical?

Of the 500 programs we studied, 117 were faith-based. Of the 96 Protestant programs, 61 were evangelical and 35 were mainline.

When did you classify programs as evangelical?

I considered them evangelical if they identified themselves as interdenominational, evangelical, or Pentecostal, or as one of the denominations traditionally considered evangelical, such as Assemblies of God or Baptist or Salvation Army.

What are these programs like?

I made the distinction between evangelical and mainline programs on the basis of their theological orientation. This meant that a number of the programs that I classified as evangelical were predominantly African American in terms of their church sponsorship, though some [African American church programs] fell into the mainline denomination category as well.

Of the evangelical programs, 46 percent were predominantly African American—at least 80 percent of both their staff members and the recipients of their services were African American.

Many studies separate out African American from white evangelical programs. Why didn't your study?

Most of these studies examine individuals rather than social welfare programs. But I was interested in studying the impact of theological orientation upon social welfare activities, irrespective of ethnicity or race.

What did you find regarding evangelical programs?

Both from the surveys and the visits, it was clear that evangelical programs tend to integrate religious aspects into their services, whereas in mainline programs, Christianity tends to be more implicit.

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For example, 48 percent of the evangelical programs reported that they encourage their clients to make personal religious commitments. And an impressive 77 percent reported that they would use religious values or motivations to encourage clients to change their attitudes or values.

What did that look and sound like?

In some classes, evangelical staff would talk about how God loves persons who are out of work, who are on welfare, who are trying to become economically self-supporting. They would talk about work as a way to honor God: that Jesus himself had been a carpenter and worked with his hands, and that work is more than just a way to earn money—it's a way to honor the Creator.

Did you notice any difference in how the beneficiaries of evangelical and mainline programs spoke of them?

They both would tend to speak positively. But what impressed me about the clients of evangelical programs were their frequent references to the caring nature of the staff. One group of homeless recipients said, "This is the best program in all of Chicago."

I asked them, "Why is that?"

One of them said, "People there care about you by showing tough love. They love you, but they also set some standards that they expect us to meet." Another person said, "They are so Christ-like here."

It's not that I would never run into those kinds of comments at mainline Protestant programs, but with the evangelical programs, it seemed like I would come across them more frequently.

What percentage of evangelical programs receive government funding?

One of the surprises was that more evangelical programs were receiving government funding—51 percent, versus 40 percent of the mainline programs.

This carried through also when you looked at the amount of funding: 38 percent of the evangelical programs reported receiving more than half of their funding from the government, compared to 31 percent for mainline programs.

What's the reason for this difference?

That is a tough question. The best I can come up with is this: When you have programs on the street that are working, some of these more theoretical questions (whether religion is being brought inappropriately into the program, if hiring is based on religion, etc.) fall by the wayside. Local and state funding agencies are just asking, "Are these programs getting the job done?" Evangelical programs can compete with anyone else in terms of effectiveness.

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What do you say to critics who see incorporating evangelism and religious values as a violation of church-state separation?

Many evangelical programs, when they have Bible studies or devotional activities, make them voluntary. Many of these efforts to encourage clients to make religious commitments are done with private money at a time separate from the other services. That's a partial answer.

But even more fundamentally, we know that government funding cannot be used for sectarian worship, instruction, or proselytizing. Yet those words are not self-defining. If welfare-to-work staff reassure recipients that Jesus loves them, that work is a way to honor God, and that we all have a calling to fulfill in life—is that sectarian instruction? I think not.

Now the ACLU might disagree with me on that. But to me, this is using broad Christian values to help people overcome tremendous obstacles in becoming economically self-sufficient. I attended similar classes at secular nonprofit organizations. They also used values—non-religious values. They would talk about earning the respect of your family by going out to work or feeling better about yourself. But both evangelical and secular programs use values to motivate and improve the self-esteem of their clients.

It's almost impossible to motivate people to undergo a substantial change without inspiring them with some kind of values.

Yes. These programs are working with people who have had some tough experiences, either through mistakes they've made or conditions not of their fault. They've been beaten down. In order to enable them to compete in the job market, you have to encourage them. And if the Christian faith can be used to that end, that's wonderful.

How do the government and faith-based agencies get along?

Whether or not evangelical programs receive government funds, they seem to be part of an informal network of consultation and referral.

A majority of evangelical programs indicated that they sometimes referred recipients to government agencies. And government agencies refer clients to them; sometimes, evangelical agencies are contacted by government agencies just for advice.

What does this collaboration signal?

It means that the evangelical organizations are doing a good job and that they're respected for that. It also indicates the irrelevance of the more theoretical church-state separation debates that go on in Congress and among interest groups. A lot of these issues can be fought out theoretically, but in the real world, these groups are working together and resolving their disagreements. The lines between Christian agencies, government agencies, and secular nonprofits are not as sharp as they are made out to be in the more theoretical debates.

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Related Elsewhere:

Information about Stephen Monsma's book Faith, Hope, and Jobs is available from Georgetown University Press. The book is available from Amazon.com and other book retailers.

Monsma's lecture Myths, Lies, and Soundbites: Reactions to President Bush's Faith-Based Initiative (.PDF) is available from Calvin College's Paul B. Henry Institute.

More CT articles are available on our Social Justice page.

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