Public wary of funding faith-based social services

While Americans like the idea, support weakens over specifics, a survey finds.

On the face of it, Americans like George W. Bush's proposal to give funding to religious groups that provide social services.

But when they mull over specific details of the plan - which religions should qualify, which services should they provide - that support quickly slips into widespread skepticism.

The extent of Americans' reservations over the faith-based initiative, as shown in a new nationwide poll, indicates that the proposal may have a tough time getting through Congress. Already, the Senate has announced it will delay consideration of the plan, to allow for more public discussion of some of the more controversial issues involved.

The responses also provide a telling glimpse into where the public stands on questions of religious tolerance, and the place of faith in society.

"Americans have just begun to engage on this issue, and some important concerns are being registered [in the study] about their comfort levels," says Melissa Rogers, executive director of the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. The survey of 2,014 adults was sponsored by the forum, along with Pew Research Center for the People & the Press.

While 75 percent of Americans support the idea of funding religious groups to provide social services, they express plenty of reservations on specifics:

* On eligibility to receive funding, most Americans would not extend that right to non-Judeo-Christian groups, such as Muslims, Buddhists, Nation of Islam, or the Church of Scientology. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints squeaks by with just 51 percent backing.

* Almost 60 percent would prohibit groups that encourage religious conversion from competing for federal funds.

* And 78 percent oppose allowing tax-funded groups to hire only those of their own faith to provide services, a provision permitted under "charitable choice."

The best arguments for supporting the faith-based initiative, Americans say, lie in providing people with options for services, and service-providers who are more caring and compassionate. The strongest reasons for not doing it relate to government entanglement with religion and the potential for clients to be coerced to take part in religious practices.

"I was struck by the large number who don't want tax money going to groups that encourage conversion," says Alan Wolfe, a political scientist at Boston College in Massachusetts. "The tolerance Americans have is related to the idea that religion is essentially one's own business, and they get uncomfortable about too much in-your-face evangelicalism."

Despite the resistance to funding non-Judeo-Christian groups, 87 percent of those surveyed said they are not bothered by the increase in non-Christians in the United States, which confirms other studies on Americans' acceptance of diversity.

Sulayman Nyang, a professor at Howard University in Washington, and director of a project on Muslims in America, says that along with the dark clouds for Muslims in the report, he sees some silver linings.

The survey revealed generational differences, with younger people twice as open to Muslim participation in President Bush's plan. "Fifteen years from now, you will have a population that has gone to school with Muslim kids that is more appreciative of the Muslim contribution," he says.

In rating religious groups, 65 percent of Americans say they are favorable toward Muslims, while only 34 percent are favorable toward atheists.

Americans believe religious groups can't do the social-service job alone, and are selective about which services they would do best. They would pick them over other nonprofits or the government to feed the homeless and to counsel prisoners. But, by a wide margin, they would prefer that government agencies handle literacy, healthcare, and job-training programs. Any nonprofit group could do a good job on mentoring or teen pregnancy, they say.

The faith-based initiative has become more politicized since the president announced his proposals, with support rising among Republicans and slipping among Democrats. Still, views differ greatly within political parties and within religious groupings. Blacks and Hispanics show stronger support (81 percent) than whites (68 percent). Older Americans are much less enthusiastic than are young people.

The report also explores the influence of religion on attitudes toward policy issues, and found it played a major role in opposition to assisted suicides, gay marriages, research on human cloning, and the death penalty.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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