Few Black Churches Get Funds

Accompanied by religious leaders, President Bush signed executive orders in 2002 allowing federal money to flow to faith-based social services programs.
Accompanied by religious leaders, President Bush signed executive orders in 2002 allowing federal money to flow to faith-based social services programs. (By Gerald Martineau -- The Washington Post)
By Michael A. Fletcher
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 19, 2006

The Bush administration's faith-based initiative is reaching only a tiny percentage of the nation's black churches, most of which have limited capacity to run social programs, hampering the initiative's promise of empowering those congregations to help the needy, according to a study to be released today.

The national survey of 750 black churches by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies found that fewer than 3 percent are participating in the program, which funnels at least $2 billion a year in federal social services spending to religious organizations.

Black churches in the Northeast and those with self-identified progressive congregations and liberal theologies were most likely to be taking part in the program, a finding that surprised the researchers, who concluded that the White House has not used the program as a political tool as some critics have suspected.

"Those people who were most worried can exhale," said Robert M. Franklin, a professor of social ethics at Emory University who worked as a consultant on the survey. "Churches have not been manipulated by Karl Rove. They have not sold out."

Despite instances of grants going to political and ideological supporters of President Bush, the survey found that, overall, liberal-leaning churches were more likely to apply for and receive the grants, even though they tend to view the program more skeptically than their conservative counterparts do.

"The thing is that the churches that are most likely to actually do social outreach or social ministry are liberal churches, they are not conservative churches," said David A. Bositis, a senior research associate at the center who conducted the study. "Those churches may have significant reservations about the program. But if the money is there, they are going to take it. They are the ones who have the capacity and the infrastructure to get grants and administer them."

While many of the churches surveyed had an interest in assisting those in need and frequently offered small-scale programs such as food pantries or used-clothing giveaways, most had neither the money nor the expertise to do more -- or even to seek more resources.

Most of the nation's estimated 50,000 black churches are led by pastors who work other jobs full time and have little more than administrative help in running their churches. The survey found that more than one in four black churches had annual revenue of less than $100,000 and half had revenue of less than $250,000. Only 12 percent reported taking in more than $1 million a year.

"The survey reveals for us the breadth of churches in the African American community, and it shows how churches that already have capacity have a leg up on churches that may do some good things" but are not in a position to do them on a larger scale, said Harold Dean Trulear, a professor of religion at Howard University who was an adviser on the study.

Jay Hein, director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, said that while participation in the initiative among African American churches may not be high, interest is. He said his office has trained thousands of community leaders in the mechanics of the program and has encouraged state and local governments to do the same.

Under Bush's initiative, federal departments have worked to make it easier for religious groups to compete for federal grants to operate programs including drug treatment counseling and Head Start. Bush signed executive orders authorizing the initiative in 2002. It allows religious groups to receive federal grants while exempting them from certain civil rights statutes.

Bush, who has said he wanted to level the playing field between religious and secular organizations, has often said he believes that faith-based groups are more efficient and effective in helping the needy than many government-run social services programs.

"Some Republican strategists had thought of charitable choice as a way to broaden the appeal for the Republican Party among African Americans," said John C. Green, a senior fellow in religion and American politics at the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.

Green said many people had asked him whether the Bush administration was being political or sincere in launching the initiative. "I think both," he said. "What you may be seeing in this survey is evidence of the sincere part of the program."

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