Should Religious Groups Take Government Funds? What Do People Think They are Good At?

By Ryan P. Burge, Eastern Illinois University

The last round of legislation from Congress in an attempt to stave off a nationwide economic depression – the CARES Act – included an interesting provision – it would provide low interest loans to small businesses to make payroll while they were seeing lower revenue. A recent clarification notes that churches are eligible to take advantage of these small business loans. Additionally, Samaritan’s Purse has set up dozens of tents in Central Park in New York City – but some have wondered if they would refuse to treat those from the LGBT community. And, it’s not out of the realm of possibility that a group like Samaritan’s Purse would get federal dollars since it happened before.

In what cases are the American public in favor of giving governmental assistance to religious groups? The data seems to indicate that Americans are generally supportive of religious groups receiving federal monies, but there are a lot of caveats and a fair amount of trepidation when it comes to the public’s willingness to write checks to a local church.

In 2009, Pew asked a series of questions about whether a number of religious groups should be able to apply for government funds to run social programs. Nearly two thirds of Americans were supportive of the generic idea of religiously-affiliated nonprofits applying for grants. However, there is a lot less support when it comes to individual churches and specific religious organizations.

For instance, a slim majority support individual churches receiving grants (55.4%). Then, the Pew survey asked about specific types of American religion. Clearly, the public is more supportive of grant funding to well known religious groups like Catholics and Protestants (both also at ~55%). Support for giving money to Jews and evangelicals is evenly split. The respondents were ten points less supportive of Mormons getting government grants compared to Protestants. But, just a third of Americans think that Muslims should be able to apply for grants and it’s a quarter that would allow funds to flow to groups that insist that they proselytize as part of their social service. It appears that the public is fine with their tax dollars flowing to religious groups that they are comfortable with, but don’t want the money to go to religions that they have had little interactions.

What are the impediments for some people in intertwining religious charities with federal grant dollars? The survey asked about concerns that people would have related to this arrangement. Respondents could indicate if they thought each was an important concern – there are obvious splits by political partisanship.

For instance, an overwhelming majority of Republicans (81.8%) believed that the government becoming too involved with religion was an important concern – a sentiment that was shared by 63.1% of Democrats. For Democrats, the primary worry was that people who received services from these religious groups would be forced to take part in religious practices, such as worship attendance. It’s notable, however, that just over half of Republicans agreed with that concern, too. But it’s worth emphasizing that a lot of people said all of these were important concerns and in no case was the partisan split greater than 20%. Despite support for religious groups getting government funding, people have serious reservations about this arrangement.

Finally, if the government was going to award contracts to provide vital services to the community, what type of agency would be the most effective at doing the work? In eight areas of social services, respondents were asked which could do the best job: the government, a sectarian non-religious group, or a religious organization.

The general public thinks that religious organizations are best at feeding homeless people, with half the sample believing that religious organizations are best equipped in this area. The other venue where the religious organizations leads is in prison rehabilitation with forty percent of respondents indicating that churches are most effective. However, there’s no other area in which the public believes that churches are best equipped to meet needs. For instance, the public is just as likely to say that the churches are as effective at mentoring as a community group.

There are other areas when Americans think that churches are especially ineffective – those include teaching literacy, job training, and providing health care. Just 12.6% of Americans think that religious organizations would be the best at providing health care, compared to 42.9% for community based groups, and 44.5% for the government. So, while groups like Samaritan’s Purse are playing an active role in treating those afflicted by COVID-19, the public has serious reservations about this arrangement. It’s worth considering that the public is more comfortable with religious groups tackling issues that don’t require a lot of funds like mentoring, but balk when the size of the transfers would skyrocket, like in the case of health care or job training.

Taken together, what we see is a public that is supportive of giving tax dollars to religious organizations in very specific circumstances. It’s clear that if the church provides government-backed support to the community, that it must come with no religious strings attached. Huge portions of the electorate don’t want their tax dollars going to evangelism efforts. It’s also worth keeping an eye on a potential backlash against the government giving payments to Christian organizations to provide health care – the public sees them as less effective in that arena. However, in a time when everyone is pulling together and trying to work for the common good, this may be the time when partisanship and religious affiliation fall by the wayside and Americans just look for the helpers.

Ryan P. Burge teaches at Eastern Illinois University in Charleston, Illinois. He can be contacted via Twitter or his personal website.

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