The Faith Factor

GUEST: Dr. John J. Dilulio
VTR: 12/05/01

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. And my guest today is one of that fast disappearing breed of public intellectuals who have important suggestions to make about the great issues of our times and say them, both to you and to me and to those who seek and attain high office and thus can implement them.

Well, John Dilulio is Frederic Fox Leadership Professor of Politics, Religion and Civil Society and Professor of Political Science at the University of Pennsylvania. He also is a Democrat born and bred, albeit, a new Democrat who had things to say to both candidates in the 2000 Presidential campaign.

Of course, he may have had even more to say to the Republican candidate and has recently served as Assistant to President George W. Bush and as the First Director of the White House office of Faith-based and Community Initiatives.

Now, The New York Times has pointed out that he is a fellow at both the Manhattan Institute, which is a conservative think tank; and the Brookings Institute, which is not. Indeed, some of his critics charge that he has long been on both sides of many issues. And I suspect that they are right. I also suspect, however, that whatever side he seems to be on at any one moment, he’s right. Not wrong. Which means that, like Lincoln, he lives by the notion that “when new views prove to be true views,” he will adopt them. Letting consistency be a matter of the heart, or should I say of faith.

Which leads me to ask my guest about definitions. First about the “faith factor,” what does it mean? Is that a fair question? It’s used so often.

DILULIO: Well, thank you, yes. That’s a fair question. What it really means is, pointing to the role that religious organizations in this society play. Not just as houses of worship, but of places that provide pre-schools and prison ministries, drug treatment, job training and the whole range of social services, worth literally tens of billions of dollars a year. And they seem to do it, at least if you believe the preliminary evidence, it’s not definitive yet, but lots of the preliminary evidence. They do it with a cost effectiveness and an efficacy that many comparable secular programs lack.

HEFFNER: It sounds so reasonable. What then is the source of the dispute over this matter of the faith factor?

DILULIO: Well, I think it, it really is a question of, in the first instance, so many people for so long had kind of forgotten about religion in its civic capacity. Had sort of decided that godly people, if you will, would not necessarily be very welcome in the public square. That was okay to have lay ministers and clergy and so forth taking public positions, but, the thought of having these organizations and their leaders and their religious volunteers intimately involved in the delivery of social welfare services, this is something that strikes some people, at least, as a radical notion. And somewhat contrary in the views of some to our best Constitutional traditions of separation of church and state. I don’t see it that way, but that’s part of where the dispute comes from.

HEFFNER: You say you don’t see it that way. Do you see any justice to their, their concerns?

DILULIO: Oh, definitely. I mean I think if you, if you look at the best jurisprudence on the subject I think you find many reasons to be concerned, and mindful of, of the need to make sure that we’re not talking about funding religious organizations to do worship services. But there’s nothing in the Constitution, there’s nothing in the Administrative protocols under which these Federal government agencies work, for example, that would prohibit an organization that happens to be faith-based and where people happen to hum hymns while they hammer nails or, you know, where they happen to say “God bless you” in the health clinic where religious volunteers are working even when somebody hasn’t sneezed. There’s nothing in the Constitution, nothing in the Administrative Protocols and absolutely nothing in statutory law which ought to keep us from engaging these organizations as agents of social change, when, in fact, they’re out there in such great numbers, usually making bricks without straw … I mean they’re doing the work, they’re just getting very little support, both public and private.

HEFFNER: But the humming of hymns, obviously there is a concern that something more goes on at that time.

DILULIO: Well, and it’s a concern that I certainly would share. I mean I, I am absolutely not someone who believes as a citizen or as a taxpayer that anyone ought to give a penny of public money to people for the purpose of proselytizing or sectarian worship, or religious services. But the empirical facts here need to count for something, and the fact is that after over a decade worth of research, some of, a little teeny bit of it done by myself, but most of it done by others at Harvard and other respectable universities, the fact is that if you look at the organizations, the religious organizations, the community servicing ministries, the sacred places that serve these civic purposes, almost without exception they do not make entering their building, receiving their services, participating in their programs in any way contingent upon any present or eventual expression of religious faith. They are out there serving the needy and the neglected. They’re not out there trying to convert people per se.

HEFFNER: What’s your point, that you want to extend what it is that they do? Or that this is perhaps the most practical way of getting good works extended?

DILULIO: Well, it’s actually a bit of both. In the first instance we have to just recognize that in many, especially poorer urban neighborhoods in this country, if you really get down to it, these faith-based organizations, these community serving ministries are often the only organizations that are left in these neighborhoods that are providing these kinds of services that are actually doing at the street level, this kind of … these kinds of good works.

Secondly, as I mentioned a moment ago, they are often doing it with little or no support. The government, say, will put in tens of millions of dollars into a particular neighborhood, for a particular … you know, housing rehab, for example. And yet, 50% of the housing rehab work in that given poor community may be going on through faith-based organizations. And yet they’ll be receiving one-tenth of one percent of that public money.

All that President Bush has said, all that my good friend, Senator Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, has said over the years is that these organizations ought to be given a fair a shot. If they decide to step forward and participate in the government contracting process, following the same administrative protocols, the same performance measures as anyone else, they ought to be treated exactly the same as any other non-governmental, non-profit provider of those services.

So we’re not saying there ought to be any religious set-asides, we’re not saying that they ought to be given any special breaks. We’re merely saying that the discrimination in the procurement process, and in the government contracting process that has gone on and really gone on, you know, almost unopposed for much of the last 20, 30 years needs to be, needs to be reversed. Needs to be rooted out.

HEFFNER: You say discrimination for most of the last 20, 30 years. Before then?

DILULIO: It’s hard to know. If you look at the rise of government, social welfare state, in the wake of the Great Society programs of Lyndon Johnson. If you look at the rise of these inter-governmental programs, whether it’s direct social service delivery or other kinds of public health in other programs, it’s hard to know anything definitive much before the last 20 or 30 years. But there really weren’t, weren’t good data, and there aren’t really definitive studies. In my office, one of the last things I did before leaving office back in, back in September, we conducted a performance audit of five Cabinet agencies. The Department of Health and Human Services, Housing and Urban Development, Justice, Education and Labor … and we got 800 pages of documentation, if anyone’s interested, if there are any insomniacs who need that … read this sort of thing, it will definitely put you to sleep. But we summarized it in a 25-page report, I think aptly entitled “Unlevel Playing Field,” where we documented the barriers, bureaucratic barriers, legal barriers to the full and fair participation of small community based grass roots groups. By the way, not just religious ones. But religious, sacred or secular. If you’re small and you’re non-profit, you’ve got a lot against you if you’re trying to compete for these, for these government dollars.

HEFFNER: Well, I, I read “Unleveled Playing Field” and you can read it without going to sleep, not just because it’s brief …

DILULIO: (Laughter)

HEFFNER: … it’s not hundreds of pages long. But what about this business about discrimination against, not just faith based, but other smaller entities.

DILULIO: Well, there are, there are … you have to be an old public administration junkie, like me, to want to actually look at this stuff. But the fact is there are rules and regulations on the books that Washington has had for decades, that say things like, “you can only compete for the administration of these Federal social service dollars, if you have previously received these Federal social services dollars.” You get automatic points awarded in the contracting process, a bonus point, simply because you’ve shown up before. Have you had a performance review done that shows that you’ve effectively delivered after school literacy services, getting kids ready below grade level at grade level? Have you effectively rehabilitated housing? Have you … no, we don’t know since we don’t have those kinds of performance audits. But you get the money anyway just by showing up. Well, this is a major barrier to smaller community based organizations whether religious or not, that just happen not to have been in this process before. And are willing to compete, you know, in terms of the results.

HEFFNER: Let me ask you a question, just between us …

DILULIO: Okay.

HEFFNER: … as the smaller faith and not faith-based organizations begin, in terms of what you want to see happen, begin to get Federal funding, what’s going to happen as they get larger?

DILULIO: That’s a very good question and it’s a big concern, of mine, and of many other people. And I think there’s always a danger, especially of … you see for the religious organizations that if you take Caesar’s coin you may start dancing to Caesar’s tune. And for that very reason a number of religious organizations and a number of denominations have decided to stay out of this altogether. They don’t necessarily oppose it, but they just don’t think it’s a wise idea. And, you know, we have to respect their benevolent traditions.

But for those smaller groups that do feel that they want to step forward, that do want to mobilize some more public support or private support along with the public support, I think the important thing is that the money be, if we can change the process in this way, that the money be given out only on the basis of performance, with performance reviews wired in and always in the context of public, private matches.

In the Federal government, I don’t care if it’s a large national non-profit, secular organization, or small grass roots community serving ministry … it’s always a mistake, in my view at least, for the government to be the sole payer. It’s always a mistake to have just that single stake holder. It is always better to have the organizations rely on a diverse portfolio of supporters … it keeps them on their toes, it keeps everybody honest.

And it’s the way, in fact, a lot of, of successful organizations operate. Isn’t that right? So, I think it … I think part of what needs to be done is to guard against these, these potential problems, to make sure that they don’t become dependent, chronically dependent on government funds.

HEFFNER: I won’t believe you if you tell me that you’re not a betting man …

DILULIO: (Laughter)

HEFFNER: How do you bet on this question of whether we’re going to … I was going to use the word “overcome” … let me not, that’s prejudicial. If we can set aside, choose to set aside this basic fix against faith-based organizations participating in this work.

DILULIO: I, I would bet, bet the house, as it were.

HEFFNER: You would?

DILULIO: … not the house of worship …

HEFFNER: (Laughter)

DILULIO: … but the house, that we’re going to overcome this because, first of all during my eight months in office, serving President Bush, we began with Town Meetings of 200 and 300 people. And by the time I left we had a meeting of … actually in Brooklyn, New York, was the last one at a church … on what I think is a rainy Saturday morning and got several thousand people. That was true whether it was Brooklyn, or Shreveport, Louisiana. The word is out and the communities are energized. And, and there’s a disconnect between the elite politics of Washington, D.C. and what’s going on at the grass roots, with community service groups, sacred and secular. People understand this now. There’s an awareness of it. Secondly, I happen to have taken some very good news away from my Washington experience in terms of the caliber and quality of people at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue. We have some extraordinary public servants and public leaders. I think they’re in both parties. I think you can find them on both sides of the aisle. And I think you, you certainly can look forward to President Bush, who I think … his morally resolute character is now out there for all to see the way staff saw it on, pretty much, a daily basis. At least during my first eight months … of the Administration … I was there. President Bush at his end of Pennsylvania Avenue. Senator Lieberman and others, Senator Santorum from Pennsylvania, Republican at their end of Pennsylvania Avenue, really pulling this together, in a way, and building on the kindred laws that have been passed over the last four or five years and signed by President Clinton. So I think it’s going to happen. I’m pretty, in fact, I’m sure it’s going to happen.

HEFFNER: Am I my brother’s keeper? A question that I would suspect is at the basis of your own activities over all this time, not just the eight months in the White House …

DILULIO: Right.

HEFFNER: Do you think that the answer to that question in terms of Americans today is “yes”?

DILULIO: Well, I, I think that the other great bit of news is that the American people are truly a people of incredible charity and compassion. And we’re sometimes harder on ourselves than we, we should be. But the fact is that not only within the religious community, although they are the spine … religious volunteers are the spine of the volunteer sector. But across the board … Methodists, Muslims, Mormons, good people of no faith at all, Americans are willing to step up when challenged, when called. And I think that the fact of the matter is that if you look at the public opinion survey data, if you look at the actual trends in volunteer behavior, especially among some of our younger people, the so-called “Millennial” generation who often also get, I think, a little bit of bad press here and there … I think you see a nation of people who really are these “armies of compassion.” Who are the troops in what the President calls these “armies of compassion” and who are stepping forward. And in ways that aren’t trivial. In Philadelphia one of my pet programs and one the President came to celebrate in the city on July 4th is a program for mentoring prisoner’s children. Mainly low income, minority children. That program’s being staffed by people from the neighborhoods, in partnership with people from outside the neighborhoods, from the suburbs, from the mainline churches and so forth. It’s an urban-suburban religious-secular partnership. And a public-private partnership with the support of our Mayor in Philadelphia, John Street, our great Mayor there. So I, I have tremendous confidence that people in this country answer that question “yes.” And that when called upon they, they step forward. And I think that is what is happening not, and certainly what’s been happening over the last couple of months.

HEFFNER: How does that conform to the Social Darwinism that we know from the 19th Century and that seemed to have re-appeared in the, in the ’80’s and certainly the ’90’s.

DILULIO: Well, I, I think that, you know, there are these … I’m not sure I believe in cycles of history, as such. But there are these moments when the culture seems to be focused sort of inwardly. Where people are worried about themselves and theirs, and me and mine, and getting and having and spending and so forth. I don’t think that’s ever been a dominant trait or characteristic of this, of the people of the great republic. But I do think that we did go through a period where, in effect, not only the almighty dollar … by the way, I’m not against having “almighty dollars”, but where the almighty dollar seemed to be the be all and end all, even of kids at the college level, as they, you know, pass through college and were studying liberal arts and so forth. I think now you see, and especially over the last 10 years or so, people asking the question, “what’s it all for?” Kids asking the question, “what’s it all about? What is the greater purpose here?” And being willing to reach out and across in ways that I don’t know we’ve done for quite some time.

HEFFNER: And you think that’s taking them back to the stained glass windows.

DILULIO: I think it’s taking them back to stained glass windows. You know, people focus a lot on church attendance. There was a humorist, I’m not sure I remember who, but who said, “if you think going to church means you’re religious, you must think sitting in your garage makes you a car.”

HEFFNER: (Laughter)

DILULIO: Well, church attendance is a good measure, but it’s not the only measure of religiosity. George Gallup, the great George Gallup for many decades now has had a sort of a Dow Jones Industrial Average measure of religiosity and spirituality among Americans, looking at eight different indices of religious belief and practice and behavior. And according to that measure, that more complicated measure, not just pure church or synagogue, whatever attendance, Americans’ levels of religious belief, spirituality, and actual commitment … you know dedication to graceful works, if you will. Is, is really at … not all time highs, but, you know, as high as it’s been over the last several decades. So, I do see people returned to the stained glass windows, as it were. And also being more willing to engage their sacred places in civil good works.

HEFFNER: And you want to fix stained glass windows, to mix those metaphors.

DILULIO: I’d like to. I’d like to see us do more of what’s worked. I mean, when you get right down to it, I, I … I make no apologies for the fact that I am myself a person of faith and, and the fact of the matter is, I think from a purely pragmatic civil standpoint … if you want to get social welfare problems solved. If you want to get juvenile crime prevention programs that work. If you want housing rehab dollars to be spent well and result in revitalized neighborhoods, not continued blight, and just go right down the list … you will find, case by case, where there have been public/private partnerships that involve religious organizations, working with probation officials, working with police, working with public health authorities, working with Departments of Youth and Family Services, on and on and on. You get results.

HEFFNER: Tell me why.

DILULIO: Well, there are several factors and features. And I don’t claim that they’re all about the pre se about the faith in the faith factor. Faith is a motivator. But there are certain features of these organizations that other organizations just tend not to have. One of them is that people who work in them are there in the neighborhood. You know, they’re often, they’re 24/7, 365. You can take, and I have a lot of respect for social workers and so forth, and for public employees and public teachers. I’m not a person who feels that these folks need to be bashed. I, I celebrate them. But the fact is even the best, most idealistic professional social worker is going to take a few week vacation, is going to get promoted to Associate Deputy Social Worker and move to the next region. You’re talking about people whose lives are dedicated and committed to their neighborhoods, to reaching out to their own needy and neglected neighbors. That’s a big, big part of what this is about.

HEFFNER: That’s a very practical …

DILULIO: It’s a very …

HEFFNER: community based …

DILULIO: Right.

HEFFNER: … concept. Let’s move away from that.

DILULIO: Okay.

HEFFNER: … to what they’re like, what they believe?

DILULIO: When you … I, I … let me just give you one example I think that maybe sort of epitomizes or sums up … I studied crime and corrections for a number of years in the ’80’s and into the early ’90’s. I have seen just about every kind of prisoner, rehabilitation or juvenile justice anti-crime prevention program you, you … name it, I’ve probably either seen it, studied it or researched it in some way. And over the way I had seen people of faith engaging into these programs, but I never quite focused on the difference between what they do and how they do it. Nor on the differences in results. There’s a big difference when you go to a person, say, who is in an administrative segregation unit of a maximum security prison … and this is a person who’s terrorized his teachers, terrorized prison guards, terrorized fellow inmates, and come to that person with a vocabulary and a language that they’ve never heard before. That says “somebody loves you.” There’s a God who loves you, even when the streets were ugly, even when your life was miserable. Even when you thought nobody was there, there was a God who was there who loves you. And I love you. And I’m here for you. And I’m going to be here for you no matter what. And then back it up with being there. With being there. These are folks, in many cases, who have … they’ve had every kind of program and seen every kind of (laughter), you know, approach … psychiatric, social work, you name it. But there is something about this form of religious outreach, called the X factor, call it the faith factor. Call it what you will, that seems to make a special difference, especially in the lives of people who are extremely abused and neglected who have had nothing but misfortune, let’s say, or malicious things done to them, or done malicious things to others. And, you know, seeing is believing, I guess, for me. And it took a lot of seeing for me to really accept that there’s something to this.

HEFFNER: My friend, Jim Wall, who for many years was Editor of The Christian Century has been at this table a number of times decrying, when I’ve led him into it, the role that the media play in our lives, informing our attitudes toward the very matters that you are talking about. What’s your fix on that?

DILULIO: Well, it’s interesting. When this, when this initiative, when the President announced this back in January 29 of 2001, the President made this announcement and the first thing that a lot of the media focused on, of course, was church/state, church/state, church/state … highly oversimplified discussion. But the next thing they … some of them did was sort of challenge this notion that over 90% of Americans believe in God. Now, I don’t know if over 90% of all journalists believe in God. I don’t know if 90% of all card carrying academics believe in God. But there are data from Gallup and from other sources that can, you know, fill several television studios and libraries that confirm this fact. I happen to think it’s a not unhappy fact. But it is a fact. And there is a difference of culture here to a degree. And I think that there’s also sort of a mundane fact that many news organizations have always sort of treated religion as kind of a … or have come to treat religion as a kind of a marginal subject. Well, all you have to do is drive around the city and see how marginal the subject is. Several hundred thousand houses of worship in this country. It is … religion is a force and a factor that really has not been adequately appreciated by scholars, by journalists or frankly, by most of the rest of us. It’s been kind of written out of the public square, marginalized from intellectual discourse. But I think that’s really begun to change.

HEFFNER: And in terms of the marginalization, you don’t feel that it has been successful? It hasn’t worked its way, no matter what the media have thought, they haven’t been able to challenge it.

DILULIO: You know, the first three months of the President’s initiative, I stopped counting the number of stories that said the thing was stillborn, dead, derailed, going nowhere. A week before the Bill passed the House of Representatives, the week report … the aforementioned report came out … there’s just sort of a sense that this is somehow going to go away. You know, Sigmund Freud told us it was all going to go away, and it was a big misunderstanding and we had grown past it. And it wasn’t an important factor. Just as a social scientist … how can you study urban poverty, how can you study social welfare, how can you look up close and personal in a serious, systematic objective way, at the way in which urban societies are formed. Urban settlement patterns work without looking at religious organizations, institutions, individuals. You can’t do it. It’s intellectually disrespectful … it should not be respectable intellectually to leave faith out of the equation. But the good news is that more and more scholars and others are not leaving it out. But whether they do or they don’t, it goes right along.

HEFFNER: You are a good news kind of guy, aren’t you?

DILULIO: I feel that way … yeah. I try to be. I try to be.

HEFFNER: And you think that it works, and that the President is a “good news guy,” too, in this area.

DILULIO: The President of the United States is a person of just incredible moral resolution, heart … a genuine heart for people who are disadvantaged and in need, and also he is someone who knows how to, you know, reach out and form alliances and bargain and compromise. He’s also a good politician/statesman. And there are, as I said, good ones at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, like Joe … Senator Joe Lieberman. So I’m very optimistic about it.

HEFFNER: Well, we have one minute left. Compassionate Conservatism. I know that you’re compassionate. Do you consider yourself a Conservative, too?

DILULIO: Well, that’s what everybody calls me. And I’m happy to be one, you know, I guess if I had to pick a label … you know, if it had to be Liberal or Conservative, I guess I’m more Conservative, but I …

HEFFNER: Why?

DILULIO: I think it really has to do with the fact that I believe a lot of
what … a lot of what we need to know is what Sister Ellen taught me in the second grade that are based on traditions and based on, really timeless and sacred institutions that helped a … are the glue that sort of holds us together in the so-called “little platoons” and so forth. I’ve always felt that way. It doesn’t make me agree with my Republican friends on every issue by any means. But if I must accept a label, that’s one I’m comfortable to accept.

HEFFNER: Professor Dilulio, thank you so much for joining me today.

DILULIO: Thank you very much. Pleasure.

HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. If you would like a transcript of today’s program, please send $4 in check or money order to: The Open Mind, P. O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, New York 10150.

Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”

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