Sacred-Public Partnerships: Religious Organizations and the Social Safety Net

This article is part of the Sacred-Public Partnerships series, published in collaboration with Sacred Sector, an initiative of the Center for Public Justice. The series explores the ways in which faith-based organizations the sacred sector and government partner for good. Sacred-Public Partnerships focuses specifically on the intersection of the sacred sector, religious freedom, and government-administered social safety net programs and explores why partnership between government and the sacred sector is essential to the success of social services in the United States. 

By Collin Slowey

Religious freedom and the social safety net are often characterized as belonging to opposing political philosophies, and overlap is scarcely considered. In reality, however, cooperation between government and faith-based organizations (FBOs) is crucial to serving those in need, and the well-being of FBOs is, therefore, closely connected to the effectiveness of the social safety net. In this series, the social safety net is defined as the network of government programs and civil society institutions, like faith-based and nonprofit organizations, churches, and private organizations, dedicated to supporting those in need of assistance.

A core prerogative of many major religions, and certainly of Christianity, is to serve the vulnerable and those in need. Believers take the biblical command to serve the poor and suffering very seriously. This commitment is evidenced by the fact that religious organizations provide approximately 35 percent of the country’s volunteer hours. Catholic nonprofits provide between 17 and 34 percent of all private social services, and, according to recent research by Brian Grim, President of the Religious Freedom & Business Foundation, religious institutions contribute $1.2 trillion to society and the U.S. economy every year, more than the top 10 tech companies’ contributions combined.

Of course, the government, which ultimately is responsible for federal safety net programs like Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), and others, is the biggest contributor, spending more than three times the money that the private sector does on assistance. However, the government often benefits from partnerships with religious nonprofits. A great quantity of the aforementioned charitable work— over half for some organizations — is only made possible by the government’s decision to consider religious and secular institutions on equal footing when allocating grant funding. 

...the religious freedom of institutions is closely intertwined with the social safety net.

The federal government regularly gives funds intended for social services to independent charities that it deems responsible and effective. In this way, it can provide social services without having to directly administer them, instead relying on small, local organizations that are already established in their communities. 

This often results in government money going to religious institutions, which might seem to violate the separation of church and state. However, since the government only funds nonprofits’ social service activities (use of grants for strictly religious activities is prohibited), the federal government — from the Clinton era to present — has deemed it religious discrimination to refuse funding to FBOs. The government has ruled that institutions that are just as reliable and effective at helping those in need as their secular counterparts should not be withheld access to valuable resources simply because of their religious identities and missions. As a result of this ruling, millions of federal dollars go to faith-based social services providers every year. This indicates that the religious freedom of institutions is closely intertwined with the social safety net.

The Sacred-Public Partnerships series will explore the interaction between FBOs, which make up what is known as the sacred sector, and the government-administered social safety net, known as the public sector. The contributors will explore crucial questions like: What is the proper role of government in serving those in need? What are the roles of civil society and religious groups? How do FBOs and the government work together to provide temporary assistance? And why is institutional religious freedom and pluralism important for the success of social services in the U.S? 

Determining the answers to these questions is no simple task. The series will consider these topics based on fundamental, guiding principles. The Center for Public Justice (CPJ) utilizes a public justice framework, in which high priority is placed on determining the right roles and responsibilities of government and civil society. Several ideas central to public justice have relevant and helpful implications for understanding sacred-public partnerships; these ideas will inform the articles that make up this series. These include: 

  1. The Unique Call of Government. In a public justice framework, government has a responsibility to pursue the common good of all citizens. When poverty poses a threat to society as a whole, or when the government alone can ensure the welfare of those in need, it has a responsibility to act. According to CPJ’s Guideline on Welfare, “people in dire poverty need help even when their neighbors are not generous or when economic conditions restrict private charity. Moreover, need and wealth are often found in different places.” Private organizations cannot appropriate or redistribute resources in the way that the government can. Circumstances like these require unique action from the state.

  2. The Role of Civil Society. According to the CPJ Guideline on Welfare, “Government’s main way of addressing poverty should be preventive.” Many social services, therefore, ought to be supplied by individuals and private institutions, to whom the call to “be a neighbor” is universally addressed. As Christians, the call to be a neighbor — which is inseparable from the call of Jesus — is especially important.

  3. Sacred-Public Partnership. When the government does provide help to the vulnerable, it is important that it considers doing so via cooperation with the sacred sector. Private organizations, like churches, “are close to the needs [of the poor] and devoted to alleviating them,” which means they are often the entities best suited to provide services. In turn, FBOs should prayerfully discern whether their sacred identities and missions would be well served by accepting government funds before they pursue or accept grants.

  4. Institutional Pluralism. Human dignity requires us to respect one another’s ability to act on deeply held beliefs in the public square, whether as individuals or in association. Furthermore, when the religious freedom of organizations is protected, they are able to serve communities in diverse and distinctive ways. It is, therefore, essential for both FBOs and the government to honor institutional pluralism. Pluralism needs to be upheld, even and especially when government funding is involved, by considering religious and secular grant applicants on equal footing.

Despite appearing to be in opposition, the sacred and public sectors have the potential to complement one another and, thereby, enhance their contributions to the public good. No institution has access to as many resources and funds as the federal government. Meanwhile, the sacred sector is among the most well-established and effective in serving the vulnerable. The combination of the strengths of both can be a powerful force for good. 

As Christians, we need to tend to our religious and civic duty to feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, and give to the poor. Respecting the right roles and responsibilities of government and civil society, we cannot limit our horizons to the work of private organizations, but must work to develop a constructive partnership with the government for the wellbeing and flourishing of our neighbors and our nation.

Collin Slowey is a former intern with the Center for Public Justice and a political science student at Baylor University.


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