Church and State: Divide or Unite?

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The Bush administration is proposing an innovative approach to government services by creating an entirely new department — the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. Under the stewardship of newly appointed agency head, John Dilulio, a former political science professor, this office would provide federal funding to religious institutions and organizations that offer social services. Everything from soup kitchens to child care, drug abuse services to domestic abuse prevention might soon be offered by a host of religious entities such as the Roman Catholic Church and The Unification Church of Dr. Sun Myung Moon.

“Faith-Based� Funding Gets Definite, But Divided, Support

The Pew Research Center for The People and The Press conducted a nationwide poll of 2,041 adults in March 2001 to examine public views on religion. The results show that the role religion plays in most Americans' lives is huge — and that they like it that way. Three-fourths believe religious institutions contribute to solving important social problems (i.e., poverty, crime); about a quarter say they contribute a great deal. Not surprisingly, support for “faith-based� initiatives is strongest among this latter group, as well as among both black and white evangelicals, people in the lowest income bracket and people who never attended college (40 percent versus 32 percent of those who did). Overall support for faith-based funding is higher among both Hispanics and blacks (81 percent each) than among whites (68 percent).

The poll asked whether people favor “allowing churches and other houses of worship to apply for government funding to provide social services such as job training or drug treatment counseling to people who need them.� The response was overwhelmingly positive: 75 percent in favor (30 percent strongly in favor), up from 67 percent in a September 2000 poll. A key clause in the question — “to people who need them� — pre-empted objections from those who believe such services may be “unnecessary.� Another key clause: When the question is framed in terms of the government “giving� funds to churches instead of “allowing churches to apply� for funds, support drops to 66 percent. The first implies that the government is in control, while the latter puts matters firmly in the hands of the church. The implication: People want churches to hold the purse strings; they do not want government dictating church behavior.

Who does the best job providing services to the needy?

Total 37% 27% 28% 8%
Republicans 49% 25% 17% 9%
Democrats 33% 27% 32% 8%
Independents 32% 30% 31% 7%
White Evangelicals 53% 19% 19% 9%
White Mainline Protestants 33% 32% 27% 8%
White Catholics 35% 27% 30% 8%
Black Evangelicals 46% 14% 32% 8%
Black Mainline Protestants 31% 22% 41% 8%
Secular (all races) 18% 46% 29% 7%
Source: The Pew Research Center for The People & The Press

Alms for the Poor

We've sacked the Great Society. We've declared warfare on welfare. But most Americans still think that government should be responsible for the nation's poor. While 63 percent of Americans believe “religion can answer all or most of today's problems� (according to an August 2000 Gallup poll), they seem to also believe that the Lord's work doesn't necessarily unfold in a state bureaucracy.

Despite this underlying belief, most Americans seem to increasingly endorse a melding of the two. Gallup asked 1,003 Americans in February 2001 about their awareness and support of Bush's initiative. The poll found that slightly more citizens favor the idea: 48 percent versus 44 percent opposed. Of those in favor, 87 percent still approve if the measure supported “conservative Christian churches.� However, approval drops if the program supports Islamic organizations (62 percent).

Blacks are more in favor than whites (56 percent versus 47 percent), young people more than old (54 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds versus 45 percent of people 50 years and older) and Midwesterners are more enthusiastic than people in other regions (55 percent in favor versus only 37 percent of Westerners).

Although a majority of Americans are religious — 84 percent describe their beliefs as either religious or spiritual according to the August 2000 Gallup poll — our faith in religious organizations has fallen over the past 25 years. From a high of 68 percent in 1975, today 56 percent of Americans have “a great deal� or “quite a lot� of confidence in the church — only slightly higher than our faith in the police force.


Most Americans think the gov't is in charge of charity.

1995 1998
The government 55% 32%
The poor themselves N/A 28%
Churches 28% 14%
Families of poor people N/A 12%
Gov't & churches equally 10% N/A
Private charities N/A 6%


How closely have you been following the news about President Bush's initiative that will encourage religious organizations to use public funds to provide social services?

Very closely 21%
Somewhat closely 39%
Not too closely 22%
Not at all 17%
No opinion 1%

In general, do you approve or disapprove of this initiative which will use government funds to help religious organizations provide social services?

Approve 48%
Disapprove 44%
No opinion 8%
Note: Numbers may not sum to 100 since not all answers shown.
Source: Gallup Organization

Amending the First Amendment?

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…but Americans have mixed feelings about what that means. In “For Goodness Sake: Why So Many Want Religion to Play a Greater Role in American Life,� based on a November 2000 poll of 1,507 Americans, Public Agenda adds another important factor to the issue by highlighting whether the inclusion of religious messages in charitable efforts influences public support of faith-based programs. The results: 44 percent support programs even if they promote religion, while 23 percent hedge their responses with the caveat, “only if such programs stay away from religious messages.� Interestingly, the question as asked was vague about who might propose such programs (“some people� rather than “the Bush administration�), but specific about what kinds of services they might cover (“drug addiction� as opposed to “literacy� or other programs).

A majority of Americans don't want the government to mix religious messages with charitable work.

Some people suggest that the government should increase its funding of religious groups and churches that offer programs to help drug addicts and the homeless. Which comes closer to your own view?

This is a good idea even if these programs promote religious messages 44%
A good idea but only if these programs stay away from religious messages 23%
It's a bad idea for government to be funding religious organizations 31%
Don't know 3%
Numbers have been rounded. Source: Public Agenda


  • In general, Americans like the idea of the government financing faith-based services, but mainly in the abstract. Once specific programs are discussed, such as preventing unwanted pregnancies, support decreases. When specific religious denominations are mentioned (whether it's Protestant churches or nontraditional entities like the Church of Scientology), support drops off dramatically.

  • Most Americans don't seem to object to blurring church-state lines on a constitutional basis; their concern lies in how they think such a blur might impact their own lives.


  • While it's as important as ever to avoid offending nonbelievers or those who choose to keep their faith private, allowing spirituality to filter into marketing messages is no longer such a no-no. But we're not talking about brandishing a cross. Spiritual images can be incorporated into a brand campaign in more subtle, creative ways. Take the Hudson River School approach — these 19th century painters used luminescent landscape imagery to illustrate and celebrate their faith.
  • Tune in to minority faiths and be sensitive to their beliefs. First, many Americans qualify support of faith-based programs insofar as they occur within major religions. This leaves religious minorities feeling like outsiders. Second, many religious minorities fear their beliefs will be either trampled on or ignored. For these Americans especially, tolerance is sacred. When celebrating faith, be vague or be inclusive.
  • Most Americans think of religious belief as a deeply individualistic pursuit. While community spirit and connection can be celebrated, spirituality should be conveyed not only as pluralistic but as personal.
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