All over America, houses of worship are closing. This will affect ‘faith-based’ initiatives.

  Rob Boston

Earlier this month, NPR ran a thought-provoking story about a trend we’re likely to see more of in the coming years: the closing of houses of worship.

The story outlines the pain parishioners feel when a religious community they’ve attended for decades can no longer survive financially.

Why is this happening? As the story notes, Americans’ views on faith and spirituality are changing: “Just 16% of Americans say religion is the most important thing in their life, according to a new report released this week by the Public Religion Research Institute. A 2020 survey found that the average congregation size across Christian denominations is less than half what it was in 2000 – down to 65 from 137. It also found that on average, a third of churchgoers are 65 or older, twice that age group’s representation in the general population.”

The demographic data is interesting, but what does this have to do with separation of church and state? After all, whether people worship, how often they worship and where they worship is not the government’s business.

Social services at risk

The second half of the story makes the connection explicit. It quotes Bob Smietana, a longtime religion reporter, who points out that in America, we’ve become dependent on houses of worship to provide social services. What happens when there aren’t enough churches to do that?

“Most European countries have very strong social safety net systems in place and the U.S. doesn’t,” Smietana observed. “So, when those services disappear, there really isn’t anything to replace them.”

This is an often-overlooked problem with the “faith-based” initiatives that became popular in the 1990s and greatly accelerated during the presidency of George W. Bush: We’re seeing the risk of relying on private actors – in this case, houses of worship – to provide services that many believe are a government responsibility.

Problems with ‘faith-based’ initiatives

Americans United has many concerns about faith-based initiatives. Chiefly, the term is a euphemism for taxpayer-supported religion. We also worry that some religious entities will accept public funds but still insist on the right to refuse to hire people who don’t meet rigid theological requirements, leading to taxpayer-funded discrimination. The possibility of people in need being pressured to take part in prayer and other forms of worship before getting help or simply being denied services because they are the “wrong” religion is another concern.

Those issues remain valid, but a larger question is looming: What will happen when houses of worship simply don’t have the bandwidth to provide the array of social services – everything from soup kitchens and overnight shelters to substance abuse counseling and elder-care programs – that many have come to rely on?

If we’re smart, we’ll start thinking about this now and formulating a plan that transfers these services from the religious to the government sector – something many advocates of separation of church and state believe should have happened years ago.


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