America’s religious demographics are changing. A nation that for many years had been predominantly white and Christian is now less of both. Some Christian denominations have experienced steep membership declines as growing numbers of Americans declare that their religion is “none.”
Religion News Service recently examined how this phenomenon might affect the provision of social services through “faith-based” initiatives. The story notes, “As organized religion shrinks, replaced by a spiritually unaffiliated and unorganized demographic known as the nones, how will faith-based charities respond? And who will take their place if they collapse?”
The last question is interesting, but it begs another: Why is our country relying so much on religious groups to help people in need in the first place?
To be sure, a lot of what houses of worship and religious organizations do in this area is voluntary and motivated by a sincere desire to help those who have hit hard times. But much of the growth of faith-based programs was due to government policy. During the 1990s, the federal government and many states began aggressively promoting the idea that religious groups, backed by taxpayer funding, could serve as agents of the government in tackling various social problems such as poverty, substance use disorders, homelessness, chronic unemployment and others.
The idea really took off during the administration of President George W. Bush, who was a big fan of the approach. At the time, Americans United warned of looming problems. We were right. Some religious organizations (chiefly conservative evangelicals) are happy to contract with the government and accept public funding – but they don’t want to serve everyone, they insist on subjecting people to unwanted proselytism during vulnerable points in their lives and they’ll only hire people who share their faith.
Discrimination – on the taxpayer's dime – isn’t uncommon. In recent years, we’ve seen an escalation in the number of tax-funded religious agencies that refuse to serve LGBTQ people, the nonreligious, people who don’t go to the “right” church and others who don’t pass a religious litmus test. (For an example of this, see the case of Aimee Maddonna, a Catholic woman in South Carolina who was denied the opportunity to volunteer with a taxpayer-funded foster care agency because she couldn’t sign the evangelical Protestant statement of faith that the agency requires. AU is suing on her behalf.) Trump administration policies, which can leave vulnerable people bereft of services, are only making matters worse.
The Supreme Court, now even more conservative with Amy Coney Barrett on it, may give its blessing to tax-funded faith-based groups even if they discriminate. (A case like that is pending.) But if current demographic trends continue, sooner or later our nation will have to face the issue of whether faith-based initiatives are the best way to provide a range of social services in a country of 328 million.
Many nations have found ways to help their citizens without compelling them to rely on religious entities where their rights may be violated. It’s time for the United States to do the same and ensure that the rights of those in need are fully protected.