More than eight years after former President George W. Bush unveiled his faith-based initiative to make it easier for religious groups to receive government funding to provide social services, the policy continues to draw broad public support. But as was the case when Bush first announced the initiative, many Americans express concerns about blurring the lines between church and state.
Currently, 69% of Americans say they favor allowing churches and other houses of worship, along with other organizations, to apply for government funding to provide social services such as job training or drug treatment counseling. Just 25% oppose allowing faith-based groups to seek government funding to help the needy.
Support is somewhat below the peak of 75% measured in March 2001 when Bush made the faith-based initiative a key piece of his early agenda. Notably, Republicans are less supportive of this program now than they were during the early months of the Bush administration. Currently, 66% of Republicans favor allowing houses of worship to seek government funding to provide social services, down from 81% in March 2001. By contrast, more Democrats favor this than did so in 2001 (77% now vs. 70% then). As a result of these shifts, Democrats are now more supportive of this program than are Republicans, according to a survey by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press and the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, conducted Aug. 11-27 among 4,013 adults reached on both landlines and cell phones.
As a candidate in 2008, then-Sen. Barack Obama backed the concept of faith-based initiatives, while vowing to revamp the Bush-era program. Yet it was not a major issue during last year’s campaign, which was dominated at first by the war in Iraq and then by the economy. Indeed, most Americans are unaware of President Obama’s – and Bush’s – positions regarding faith-based funding. Just 27% know that Obama favors allowing houses of worship to apply for government funding to provide social services; 18% incorrectly say that Obama opposes this policy, while more than half (54%) give no answer. Bush’s stance is not much better known: just 36% know that Bush favored such a policy.
The public’s concerns about government funding for faith-based organizations – and people’s assessments of the potential benefits – have changed very little since 2001. A majority of the public views the possibility that the government might get too involved in religious organizations as an important concern (69%). And a smaller but still sizeable majority views the idea that people who receive help from faith-based groups might be forced to take part in religious practices as an important concern (60%). Roughly half see interference with the separation between church and state (52%) as an important concern, and nearly as many say the same about the possibility that such programs might not meet the same standards as government programs (48%) and that they might increase religious divisions (47%).
In addition, about three-quarters (74%) say religious organizations that receive government funds to provide services should not be able to hire only people who share their religious beliefs, a long-running point of contention in the debate.
At the same time, the survey finds strong support for several arguments in favor of funding these programs. The need for a range of service options and the potential that the people providing the services would be more caring and compassionate are cited most often as important reasons for favoring such programs (78% and 68%, respectively).
The public expresses reservations about certain religious groups vying for government dollars. While majorities think that most religions or denominations should be able to apply for government funding to provide social services, more than half (52%) say they oppose allowing Muslim mosques to apply for government funding. That is up slightly from 46% in March 2001. There is even greater opposition to allowing groups that encourage religious conversion as part of the services they provide to apply for government funding. More than six-in-ten (63%) oppose those groups being allowed to seek government funding, not much different from the 59% that said the same in 2001.
When people are asked generally whether religious organizations, non-religious organizations or the government can do the best job providing services for the needy, a plurality (37%) chooses religious organizations. That is up slightly from 2008 (31%) and matches the percentage expressing this view in 2001.
Yet there has been a sharp increase since 2001 in the proportion saying that religious organizations could do the best job of feeding the homeless. Currently, 52% say religious organizations could do the best job in feeding the homeless, compared with 21% who say a non-religious group and the same percentage who say a federal or state government agency. In March 2001, 40% said that religious organizations could best provide this service, while a quarter (25%) said a non-religious group and 28% cited a federal or state government agency.
With the economy struggling, nearly one-in-ten Americans (9%) say they recently have turned to religious groups to help make ends meet. That is comparable with the 7% that say they have sought help from non-religious community organizations.
Minorities and people with low family incomes are more likely than others to report receiving assistance from religious groups in order to make ends meet: 15% of African-Americans and 17% of Hispanics have turned to their church or another house of worship for aid, compared with 6% of non-Hispanic whites. Blacks also are more likely than whites to say they have sought help from non-religious organizations (12% vs. 6%).
In addition, 20% of those in households earning less than $30,000 a year say they have gotten help from their church or house of worship to make ends meet, while 16% say they have gotten help from non-religious community or volunteer organizations. Smaller proportions of those with higher incomes have relied on religious groups and non-religious organizations for help to make ends meet.
Groups Differ in Support for Faith-Based Programs
As was the case in March 2001, there are sizable age and racial differences in support for faith-based programs. Eight-in-ten (80%) of those younger than age 30 support the idea of allowing houses of worship to apply for government funds to provide social services. That compares with a smaller majority of those age 65 and older (56%).
While 85% of African-Americans support this policy, 65% of whites agree. Black support for faith-based initiatives is unchanged from March 2001, while white support has slipped by eight points. Among Hispanics, support for this policy is almost as high (80%) as among African-Americans.
Among religious groups, 65% of white evangelicals favor allowing churches to apply for government funds to provide social services, down from 77% in March 2001. White non-Hispanic Catholics have also become somewhat less supportive of such initiatives (72% currently vs. 81% in March 2001).
Views of Funding for Specific Religious Groups
Public opinion continues to vary widely about which religious groups should be allowed to apply for government funding to provide services to the needy. As was the case eight years ago, majorities say religious charities (68%), Catholic churches (60%), individual houses
of worship (59%), Protestant churches (56%), evangelical Christian churches (55%) and Jewish synagogues (52%) should be eligible for government funding.
But fewer than half (48%) favor allowing Mormon churches to apply for government funding to provide social services. And a majority (52%) opposes permitting Muslim mosques to be eligible for such funding; just 39% favor this. There is even greater opposition (63%) to allowing groups that encourage religious conversion as part of the services they provide to apply for government funding.
Republicans and white evangelical Protestants are now more opposed to Muslim mosques being permitted to apply for government funding for social services than they were eight years ago. By more than two-to-one (64% to 30%), Republicans now oppose allowing Muslim mosques to apply for government funds to provide social services. In March 2001, 51% of Republicans opposed mosques being eligible for such finding while 37% favored this. Currently, 44% of independents and 41% of Democrats favor allowing Muslim mosques to apply for faith-based funding, little changed from 2001, when 44% of independents and 36% of Democrats favored allowing this.
Among religious groups, two-thirds of white evangelical Protestants (66%) say they oppose Muslim mosques being eligible for faith-based funding – up 14 points since 2001. There has been less change among members of other religious groups.
The public has consistently opposed allowing groups that encourage religious conversion to apply for federal funds to assist the needy. However, there is more support for this among African-Americans and Hispanics than among non-Hispanic whites.
Nearly four-in-ten African-Americans (39%) and 35% of Hispanics say that religious groups that encourage conversion should be eligible to apply for funding to provide social services, compared with just 25% of non-Hispanic whites. A similar divide between African-Americans and whites was evident in 2001, when 45% of blacks supported this and 30% of whites did so.
Religious Hiring Remains Unpopular
The public also continues to overwhelmingly reject the idea that religious groups that receive funding for social service programs should be able to hire only people who share their religious beliefs. Nearly three-quarters (74%) say religious groups that receive government funding should not be allowed to hire only people who share their religious beliefs, compared with 21% who say this should be allowed.
While the idea of religion-based hiring by funding recipients is widely opposed, relatively large minorities of Republicans (32%) and white evangelical Protestants (33%) say this practice should be permitted. By comparison, fewer than a quarter of those in other political or religious groups say that religious groups that receive government money to provide social services should be able to restrict hiring only to individuals who share their religious beliefs.
Who Can Best Help the Needy?
Opinions about whether religious organizations – rather than non-religious groups or government agencies – can best provide services to needy people have changed very little since 2001, although there have been modest shifts since last year.
Currently, 37% say that religious organizations can do the best job of providing services to people in need; 28% say non-religious, community-based organizations can best perform this task; and 25% say federal and state government agencies can best provide services to the needy. The balance of opinion about this issue was nearly identical in 2001 (37% religious organizations, 28% government agencies and 27% non-religious groups). In 2008, roughly equal percentages said religious organizations (31%), government agencies (31%) and non-religious groups (29%) could best provide help for the needy.
Over the past year, these views have become considerably more partisan. Currently, more than half of Republicans (56%) say that religious organizations can best provide services to the needy, up 16 points from 2008 and higher than the percentage saying that in 2001 (49%). By contrast, opinions among Democrats and independents have changed little, when compared with either 2008 or 2001.
In addition, a clear majority (60%) of white evangelical Protestants now say that religious organizations can best perform this role, up 13 points from last year; in 2001, a smaller majority of white evangelicals (53%) expressed this view. White non-Hispanic Catholics also are more likely now than they were last year (38% now, 27% then) to view religious organizations as best able to serve the needy. But opinions among white non-Hispanic Catholics are about the same as in 2001 (35%).
Religious Groups Preferred for Feeding Homeless
A narrow majority of Americans (52%) now say that religious organizations can do the best job in feeding the homeless, while 21% name federal and state government agencies and the same number (21%) choose non-religious community-based groups. These opinions have changed substantially since 2001, when 40% named religious organizations, 28% said government agencies and 25% said non-religious community groups.
There have been smaller changes since 2001 in opinions about which organizations can best provide other specific social services. Notably, there have been declines in the percentages choosing federal and state government agencies in several areas, including as the best providers of health care (down 13 points) and job training (down 10 points). These changes are consistent with the declines in favorable ratings for both the federal government and state governments in recent years.(See Budget Woes Take Toll on Views of State Governments, released Aug. 11, 2009).
As with general views about which groups can best provide aid to the needy, opinions about who can best feed the homeless have become more partisan since 2001. Currently, 66% of Republicans say religious organizations can best carry out this task, up 20 points from eight years ago. More independents also say religious organizations can best feed the homeless – up from 39% in 2001 to 51% in the latest survey. Democrats’ views have changed little over this period (37% in 2001, 41% currently).
There have been changes in opinions among some religious groups as well. Majorities of white evangelicals (65%) and white non-Hispanic Catholics (54%) say religious organizations can do the best job in feeding the homeless; in 2001, 49% of white evangelicals and 42% of white non-Hispanic Catholics expressed this view.