April 10, 2001

Faith-Based Funding Backed, But Church-State Doubts Abound

Section I. Funding for Faith-Based Organizations: Broader Support, Deeper Differences

The public acknowledges that religious organizations play a constructive role in American life. Three-quarters of Americans say churches, synagogues and other houses of worship contribute to solving important social problems. Roughly one-quarter say churches contribute a great deal to solving important problems, and those who hold this view are among the most likely to strongly support government funding for faith-based programs.

There is no clear public consensus, however, over who can do the best job of providing social services to those in need. When asked, in general, who can do the best job at this, 37% of Americans say religious organizations, 28% choose federal and state government agencies and 27% opt for non-religious, community-based groups.

There are important racial, socio-economic and political differences on this issue. While pluralities of blacks and whites say religious organizations can do the best job, they differ in their views on non-religious groups and government agencies. Whites have more confidence than do blacks in the ability of non-religious groups to provide services (28% vs. 17% of blacks). Blacks, on the other hand, have more confidence in government agencies than do whites (34% vs. 26%).

Income and education are also strongly linked to opinions on this matter. College graduates choose non-religious groups over both religious organizations and government agencies — 39% to 31% and 22%, respectively. Those who never attended college opt for religious groups over government (40% vs. 32%); and very few in this group say non-religious groups can do the best job providing services (19%). In addition, those with the highest incomes are among the strongest backers of non-religious organizations, while those in the lowest-income bracket have the most confidence in religious groups.

Republicans are much more likely than Democrats and independents to say religious organizations can do the best job providing services to the needy. Nearly half of all Republicans and 55% of conservative Republicans choose church-based organizations over secular groups or government agencies. Democrats and independents divide fairly evenly among the three options.

White evangelical Protestants stand out for their strong endorsement of the work that church-based organizations can do. More than half of this group (53%) says churches can do the best job providing services. Among highly-committed white evangelical Protestants, the proportion rises to 61%. White mainline Protestants are evenly divided between backing religious organizations and non-religious groups, with slightly fewer expressing confidence in the government. Among black Protestants, evangelicals say religious groups can do the best job, while non-evangelicals choose the government. Secular Americans favor non-religious based groups over both religious organizations and government agencies.1

Conceptual Support

Proposals to allow religious groups to compete, along with other organizations, for government funds to provide social services enjoy broad public support. It is clear, however, that the public has yet to fully think through the details and implications of using government money to finance social service activities of churches and other houses of worship.

Overall, three-quarters of Americans 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 (30% strongly favor this, 45% favor). Support for this proposal has increased somewhat since September 2000 when 67% of voters favored it.

But since then, political divisions over the issue have kicked in. In September, more Democrats than Republicans endorsed the idea of government funding for faith-based social service programs (74% vs. 63%). In the current survey, support among Democrats is down slightly to 70%, while Republican support has surged to 81%. The increase in support among Republicans has come primarily among conservatives — 60% supported the proposal in September, 82% favor it now.

Support for faith-based funding remains somewhat softer when the question is framed in terms of the government “giving” funds to churches and other houses of worship; currently 66% favor the proposal under these terms.2

Underlying these partisan differences over faith-based funding are important divisions within the two major parties. The divisions are driven in part by ideology but more importantly by religion. Among Republicans, evangelical conservatives stand out as the most supportive of faith-based social services, with fully 44% strongly favoring the idea. Non-evangelical conservatives show considerably softer levels of support — 29% strongly favor the proposal — closer to the views of the moderate-to-liberal wing of the party.

Within the Democratic party, there is a significant racial divide over the faith-based proposal. Black Democrats are closer to evangelical Republicans on this issue than they are to either liberal or conservative white Democrats. Among white Democrats, those who consider themselves to be liberal or secular are the least enthusiastic about faith-based funding, with just 52% in favor and fully one-in-five (21%) saying they strongly oppose the idea.

Minorities More Supportive

While most major demographic groups favor government funding for faith-based programs, there are some important differences among key constituencies. Fully 81% of blacks and Hispanics support the proposal, compared to 68% of whites. In addition, there is a significant generation gap. Americans under age 50 are more supportive of the proposal than are those age 50 and older (76% vs. 60% in favor).

Indeed, senior citizens express the lowest level of support for the proposal. This gap can be seen across a whole range of questions dealing with the separation between church and state, and it suggests a fundamental value difference between young and old Americans regarding these issues.

Looking at the major religious groups and denominations, black Protestants stand out as the strongest backers of the proposal. More than eight-in-ten (81%) support the idea of government funding for faith-based social service programs and nearly half (46%) are strongly supportive. This enthusiasm is equally high among black evangelical and mainline Protestants.

This contrasts with the differences among white Protestants on this issue. More white evangelical Protestants support government funding for faith-based programs (73% vs. 63%). And far more white evangelicals are committed to the idea — 35% strongly support it vs. 21% of white mainline Protestants.

Catholics are also strong supporters of faith-based funding. Three-quarters of all Catholics (74%) favor government funding for faith-based programs, with 34% of highly committed Catholics strongly in favor. Not surprisingly, seculars are less enthusiastic about this proposal. Nearly one-in-five strongly opposes government funding for faith-based programs, compared to only one-in-ten of the general public. Still, more seculars favor the proposal than oppose it (57%-39%).

Providing Specific Services

As with most public policy issues, the picture becomes more complicated as the focus shifts from the general to the specific. Respondents were asked who could do the best job of providing services in several specific areas. Here the public made fairly clear distinctions regarding where religious groups could be most effective.

Of the nine problem areas included in the poll, two emerge as issues where the public feels religious organizations can clearly make a difference. First, in the area of feeding the homeless, a 40% plurality say religious groups could do the best job, compared to 28% who choose federal or state government agencies and 25% who choose non-religious, community-based groups. Similarly, in the area of counseling and educating prisoners, 40% say religious organizations could do the best job, 35% choose government agencies and 18% opt for non-religious groups.

Churches also receive a strong signal of support on two other activities — providing youth mentoring programs and teen pregnancy counseling — but so do non-religious organizations. Four-in-ten say religious groups could do the best job in providing mentoring programs for young people, while virtually the same number opt for non-religious groups. Pregnancy counseling is another issue where the public thinks religious organizations and non-religious groups could do a good job (39% choose religious groups, 42% choose secular ones). These two services stand out for the lack of confidence people have in the ability of federal and state agencies to operate effectively. Fewer than one-in-six think government would be best at mentoring and counseling young people.

Secular groups have a slight edge over religious organizations when it comes to drug and alcohol treatment programs (36% pick secular groups, while 27% choose religious ones). Roughly three-in-ten say a government agency could do the best job in this area. Americans are divided over who could do the best job of providing child care services.

There are three problem areas where government is clearly the preferred service provider: job training, health care and literacy training. More than six-in-ten Americans (61%) say a federal or state government agency could do best at providing job training services, 28% choose non-religious groups, and just 5% choose religious organizations. Nearly as many (56%) say government is the preferred provider of health care services. Here 28% choose non-religious groups and 9% choose religious organizations. In the area of literacy training, 49% choose government, 31% choose secular groups, and only 12% choose religious organizations.

Those who believe religious organizations can do the best job in general providing services to the needy apply this philosophy consistently across these various problem areas. In each case, they express a higher than average level of confidence in the ability of religious organizations to do the best job.

Deep Divisions Over Specifics

There are deep divisions among key religious and demographic groups over who can best provide these specific services. White evangelical Protestants are the most consistently supportive of religious organizations in this regard. In fact, they choose religious organizations over secular groups and government agencies in six of the nine issues tested in the poll. They opt for government only in the areas of job training, health care and literacy training. On no issue does a plurality of white evangelical Protestants favor non-religious groups.

White mainline Protestants provide essentially a reverse image of white evangelical Protestants in their attitudes about who could do the best job providing these various services. They choose secular groups four out of nine times: for treating addiction, mentoring, counseling teens about pregnancy, and providing child care. They opt for government in the areas of job training, health care and literacy. They are divided over who could do the best job feeding the homeless and counseling prisoners. In no case does a plurality of white mainline Protestants choose religious groups over the secular alternatives.

White Catholics agree with evangelical Protestants that religious groups could do the best job feeding the homeless, but in most other areas, Catholics tend to share the views of mainline Protestants. In particular, Catholics would prefer to see secular groups handle teen mentoring and pregnancy counseling, and the provision of child care services, and prefer that government agencies handle health care and literacy and job training, as do all groups.

Black Protestants tend to hold views similar to white evangelical Protestants on most social services, but with one important distinction. While religious organizations are favored for mentoring youngsters, counseling teens on pregnancy, prison counseling and feeding the homeless, black Protestants would prefer that the government take the lead in providing child care services.

College Grads More Doubtful

Disagreement over the proper role of religious organizations in public life also takes on important demographic and political characteristics. For example, nearly half (46%) of those who never attended college say religious groups could do the best job counseling teens about pregnancy. This compares with only 26% of college graduates, who tend to favor secular programs.

There are also sharp regional differences. Not surprisingly, support for religious participation in the provision of all types of social services tends to be highest in the South, where more than half (51%) of all white evangelicals live. For example, fully half of southerners say religious organizations would best provide mentoring for young people, followed closely by 42% of those in the Midwest. By comparison, just one-third of residents of the East agree, and 29% of those living in the West.

On a majority of issues, Republicans are much more likely than Democrats to choose religious organizations over secular groups and government agencies. But here again, the sharp religious differences spill over into the partisan realm, creating large gaps within each party. In the area of counseling and educating prisoners, for example, evangelical Republicans overwhelmingly see religious organizations as best able to provide these services, while conservative, non-evangelical Republicans divide evenly between government and religious organizations. This same pattern is repeated on a number of issues.

Within the Democratic Party, there are sharp differences of opinion between whites who are conservative or evangelical and those who are liberal or secular. In the area of counseling teens about pregnancy, liberal or secular Democrats choose non-religious, community-based groups over religious organizations by a margin of 72%-12%. White evangelical Democrats prefer religious groups over secular alternatives — 54%-32%.

Judeo-Christian Groups Favored

The issue of government funding for faith-based social service programs is further complicated by the question of which religious groups should be eligible to compete for government funds. In general, a strong majority of Americans favor allowing most Judeo-Christian groups to participate, but there is considerable skepticism when it comes to non-Judeo-Christian groups.

Nearly seven-in-ten would favor allowing charitable organizations that have a religious affiliation to apply for government funds. A smaller, though still substantial majority (60%), would favor allowing individual churches and other houses of worship to apply. With regard to specific denominations, roughly six-in-ten would favor Catholic churches, Protestant churches and Jewish synagogues applying as well. Smaller majorities would favor allowing evangelical Christian churches and Mormon churches to apply (52% and 51%, respectively).

Other religious groups — particularly those lacking broad national followings — face stiffer opposition. Fewer than four-in-ten Americans (38%) favor allowing Muslim mosques and Buddhist temples to apply for government funds to provide social services. Fewer than three-in-ten (29%) would permit Nation of Islam to apply for government funds, while 52% oppose this. And only 26% favor allowing the Church of Scientology to compete, while 52% are opposed.

In spite of support for the efforts of many religious groups, fully 59% of Americans oppose allowing groups that encourage religious conversion as part of the services they provide to compete for federal funds — the highest level of opposition registered in the poll.

Again, opinion varies by religious affiliation. Seven-in-ten white evangelical Protestants favor allowing individual churches, synagogues and other house of worship to apply for government funds to provide social services, compared to 54% of white mainline Protestants and 60% of white Catholics. This same pattern holds for religiously-based charities, Jewish synagogues, evangelical churches, and groups that encourage religious conversion.

However, when it comes to religious groups outside the Judeo-Christian tradition, evangelicals are more in line with other religious groups. They are less supportive of Buddhist temples seeking federal funds than are white mainline Protestants or Catholics. And they are on a par with mainliners and Catholics in their evaluations of Muslim mosques, Nation of Islam and the Church of Scientology.

Interestingly, these non-Christian groups garner some of their strongest support from seculars. Nearly half of seculars (47%) favor allowing Muslims to apply for federal money, compared to 38% of all Americans. Similarly, 46% of seculars favor allowing Buddhists to compete for government funds vs. 38% overall. The same pattern holds for Nation of Islam and the Church of Scientology.

While blacks are more likely than whites to say Nation of Islam should be eligible for government funding, black Protestants are divided on this issue: 42% say Nation of Islam should be eligible, 47% say they should not. Overall, blacks are more supportive than whites of funding for most religious groups.

Older People Wary

Older Americans are much more resistant to allowing various religious groups to compete for federal funds. Even in cases where a large majority of the public favors allowing a group to be eligible, a sharp generational gap is apparent. For example, while 69% of the public, including 76% of those under age 50, favor allowing religiously-based charities to apply for federal money, only 59% of those age 50 and older agree. The gap is largest for Nation of Islam and Muslim mosques. Roughly 40% of those under age 50 favor allowing Nation of Islam to apply for federal funds, compared to only 15% of those 50 and older.

Republicans are more open than Democrats to most groups competing for government money. As is the case with white evangelical Protestants, however, the main exceptions come for the non-Judeo-Christian groups — Muslims, Buddhists, Nation of Islam and the Church of Scientology.

Government funding for non-Judeo-Christian groups may pose one of the biggest challenges for the proposal overall. Even among the strongest supporters of government funding for faith-based social service programs, fewer than half favor allowing Muslims mosques, Buddhist temples, Nation of Islam and the Church of Scientology to participate in the process. In addition, only 47% of strong supporters of faith-based funding favor allowing organizations that encourage religious conversion as part of the services they provide to apply for government funds.

Concern Over Government’s Involvement

The poll tested a number of arguments for and against allowing churches and other houses of worship to use government money to provide social services. In spite of its broad-based support for the idea of allowing faith-based programs to compete for government funding, the public shares several of the concerns raised by opponents of the proposal. The most powerful argument against this proposal was the notion that government might get too involved in what religious organizations do. More than two-thirds of Americans (68%) say this is an important concern of theirs.

Another strong argument against government funding for faith-based programs is that the people who receive the services might be forced to take part in religious practices. Six-in-ten Americans share this concern. The only other argument endorsed by a majority of the public is that allowing religious groups to use government money would interfere with the separation between church and state (52% say this is an important concern).

The public is somewhat less concerned that faith-based funding might increase religious divisions in the country — 48% say this is a major concern, 48% say it is not. Similarly, Americans are divided over the notion that the faith-based programs might not meet the same standards as government-based programs (47% say this is an important concern, 48% say it is not).

There is a fairly broad consensus among various demographic, political and religious groups regarding the merit of these arguments. Still, some differences emerge. While blacks and whites share many of the same concerns about the proposal, blacks are more concerned than whites about the possibility that this approach might increase religious divisions in the country — 57% of blacks say this is an important concern, compared to 46% of whites.

There are also generational differences, which again show that older Americans put a higher priority on maintaining a strict separation between church and state. Fully 60% of those age 65 and older say the church-state issue is an important concern of theirs, this compares with 52% of those age 30-64 and only 44% of those under age 30.

Democrats are generally more receptive than Republicans to the arguments against government funding for faith-based programs. The one exception is on the argument that government might get too involved in what religious groups do. In this case, slightly more Republicans than Democrats cite this as an important concern (71% vs. 68%).

Options a Selling Point

The poll also laid out several arguments in favor of allowing churches and other houses of worship to use government money to provide social services. These points resonate at least as strongly as the opposing arguments.

The most popular argument in favor of funding for faith-based programs is that people who need social services should have a variety of options to pick from. More than three-quarters of Americans (77%) say this is an important reason to favor the proposal. Nearly as many (72%) cite the argument that the people who provide the services would be more caring and compassionate. Roughly six-in-ten (62%) are persuaded that religious groups could do a better job because the power of religion can change people’s lives and almost as many (60%) believe religious groups could provide services more efficiently than government programs.

The idea that people should have a variety of options is by far the most universally accepted. Even 76% of seculars say this is an important reason to favor government funding for faith-based programs. However, there is less agreement on the other statements. Blacks are more receptive than whites to the argument that religious groups could do a better job because the power of religion can change people lives — 75% of blacks say this is an important reason to favor the proposal compared to 61% of whites. The same pattern holds for the argument that service providers in faith-based programs would be more caring and compassionate — 81% of blacks say this is an important reason compared to 71% of whites.

Education is also an important factor in evaluating these arguments. Only 48% of college graduates support the idea that the power of religion is an important reason to favor government funding for faith-based programs; this compares with 69% of those who never attended college. Similarly, 61% of college graduates accept the argument that service providers would be more compassionate vs. 77% of those who never attended college.

Protestants are divided over these two arguments. The biggest gap exists over the idea that religious groups can do a better job because the power of religion can change people’s lives: 84% of white evangelical Protestants say this is an important reason to favor government funding for faith-based programs, compared to 56% of white mainline Protestants. Fully 84% of white evangelical Protestants endorse the idea that the people who work in religiously-based programs will be more compassionate, compared to 65% of mainline Protestants. These two groups are also divided over whether religious groups could provide services more efficiently than government programs: 74% of white evangelical Protestants say this is an important reason to favor the proposal, 56% of mainline Protestants agree.

Those who support faith-based funding overall are more convinced by these arguments than are those who oppose it. Still a strong majority of opponents agree (62%) that people who need social services should have a variety of options to pick from, and 52% say the idea that service providers working in faith-based program might be more compassionate is an important reason to favor the proposal.

Strongest Arguments — Pro and Con

While each of these arguments, both for and against government funding for faith-based organizations, are clearly related to overall support for or opposition to the proposal, some stand out as more important than others. When all of the opposing arguments are taken together, concerns over people being forced to take part in religious services and the separation between church and state are the strongest predictors of opposition to faith-based funding across a range of problem areas.3 In both cases, the more receptive one is to these arguments against faith-based funding, the less likely that person is to support religious organizations using government funds to provide specific social services.

Looking at the arguments in favor of funding for faith-based programs, the idea that the power of religion can change people’s lives is most strongly linked to support for this approach. The idea that faith-based programs can run more efficiently is also a powerful predictor of support for religious involvement across a variety of areas.

When the arguments for and against allowing churches and other houses of worship to use government money to provide social services are pitted against each other, the positive arguments clearly outweigh the negative ones. The power of religion and efficiency arguments stand out as the most important predictors of support for faith-based funding, even when the five arguments against this approach are factored in.

Hiring Practices, Biggest Hurdle

Probably the biggest red flag the survey raises for proponents of government funding for faith-based social service programs is the widespread resistance to any sort of discriminatory hiring practices on the part of religious organizations that receive government funds. Respondents were asked if religious organizations that use government funds to provide social services should be allowed to only hire people who share their religious beliefs. The answer was a resounding no. More than three-quarters of Americans (78%) say religious organizations should not be allowed to do this.

Even the strongest supporters of funding for faith-based programs are opposed to extending the exemption from federal hiring laws currently accorded to religious groups. Roughly seven-in-ten Republicans say religious organizations that use government funds should not be able to hire only those who share their religious beliefs; 65% of white evangelical Protestants agree.

The poll tested variations on this question and found opposition levels to be relatively constant, regardless of how the question was worded. When respondents were asked a softer version of the question — should religious organizations that use government funds be allowed to hire people on the basis of their religious beliefs — 69% said they should not be allowed to do this. And when people were asked whether such religious organizations should be allowed to only hire people who share their moral values, 62% said they should not be allowed to do this.

  1. Throughout the report, “secular” Americans are those who either identify themselves as atheist or agnostic or express no religious preference and rarely, if ever, attend religious services. The terms “mainline Protestant” and “non-evangelical Protestant” are used interchangeably to refer to those who do not self-identify as evangelical or born again.
  2. For purposes of analysis, the two forms of this question (which were asked of independent samples) have been combined to increase statistical significance. Response patterns across different demographic and political groups were similar for each form of the question.
  3. Based on multiple regression analysis. The dependent variable is an index of the number of social services a respondent thinks religious organizations would do the best job of handling.