Impolite Question: Do Faith-Based Programs Actually Work?

One reason to be wary of the faith-based approach: It may not work.

Americans United for Separation of Church and State opposes "faith-based" initiatives because we believe that pouring millions of taxpayer dollars into the coffers of religious groups is unconstitutional.

But there are other reasons to be wary of the approach. It may not work, for example.

When President George W. Bush unveiled his initiative back in 2001, he and his supporters began claiming that faith-based groups provide social services more effectively and cheaper than others. They said it over and over again. There is, however, one major problem with this assertion: No empirical evidence backs it up.

Michele Gilman, associate professor at the University of Baltimore's School of Law, makes this point in a recent Baltimore Sun column. Gilman cites work by Mark Chaves of Duke University, who examined a study of congregations nationwide and determined that for most of them, social services are a peripheral part of their mission.

Despite all of the talk about mega-churches, most American congregations are of modest size. Most of them, Chaves discovered, are focused on a religious mission and lack the accouterments of professional management, such as staffing and office technology.

Wrote Gilman, "He found that most charitable efforts are spearheaded by a tiny, dedicated core of volunteers and are focused on assisting with the emergency needs of the poor for food, clothing and shelter. These volunteers do not deliver charity in a particularly holistic way, and they do not engage in long-term contact with the needy. The advent of charitable choice has not changed these patterns."

Many religious people have good intentions, and that's great. But good intentions are not enough. Some of these small congregations may be able to provide limited relief to those in need on an emergency basis from time to time, but they are woefully unprepared for the larger problems that plague society.

Consider the problem of alcohol and drug addiction. It would be difficult to estimate what addictions cost American society every year in lost productivity and medical costs alone. It may run in the billions. Yet the problem of addiction has proven a tough nut to crack. Many addicts get sober for a while and then relapse.

Addiction is a multi-faceted problem where chemical, emotional, biological and perhaps even genetic factors come into play. If professionals who have spent years gaining credentials and studying in this field have not solved the problem of addiction, why on earth would be we believe a small church somewhere could tackle it? Yet Teen Challenge, a fundamentalist Christian group that purports to help young people overcome addiction through religious conversion, is a frequent target of faith-based funding.

The approach is dubious, and no objective study has shown that Teen Challenge is effective. Intensive prayer and Bible study may work for a select few, but it's far from a comprehensive answer.

The constitutional problems of the faith-based initiative are serious. The fact that there is no evidence that the approach works is simply one more reason why we ought to tread carefully in this area.