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Was the Bush Faith-Based Initiative a Failure?

Mark Chaves, Duke University professor and director of the National Congregations Study, recently commented that the National Congregations Survey shows that the Bush faith-based initiative "accomplished so little." Comparing data from 2006–07 with the results from 1998 shows no increase in the percentage of congregations that offer social services, the proportion that devotes at least a quarter of an employee's time to such services, or the proportion that receives government funding to provide services.

As Chaves says, it could be that the glass is actually half full, not half empty: the survey shows that 82 percent of congregations offer social services—a major contribution to the wellbeing of our society. Further, there has been markedly more congregational interest in receiving government funds to support their services, a big jump in the number of congregations that hosted a speaker from a social service group, and a significant increase in the number of churches that has conducted an assessment of community needs. All the attention to the federal faith-based initiative—negative as well as positive, inaccurate as well as factual—no doubt helped to spark these important changes, he notes.

Still, he says, while congregational interest in social service programs went up, their behavior didn't change: there was no big bump in government funding of church-based social services.

But, of course, the Clinton, Bush, and now Obama faith-based initiatives are not federal programs devoted to expanding government funding of churches to provide social services! The federal reform effort has two other aims. The general aim is to make the federal government a better supporter of the good and important work that is done ...

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