Are Faith-Based Programs More Effective?

Second Quarter 2001

by Stephen V. Monsma

It is simply astounding the degree to which social scientists and policy researchers have almost totally ignored faith in researching the effectiveness of social-service programs. Since there are few if any scientific studies in this area, some argue that President Bush's faith-based and community initiatives should be put on hold until more evidence is in. Does that make sense? I think not.

There is some direct and much indirect evidence that faith-based agencies are, in fact, more effective in enabling people to overcome persistent social ills. A study of New York prisoners who had taken part in Prison Fellowship Bible studies showed them to have a much lower recidivism rate than a matched group of prisoners who had not taken part in Bible Studies. Of those who took part in only 10 Bible studies, a mere 14 percent were rearrested within a year of their release, while among the matched group of those who had not taken part, 41 percent were rearrested. Similarly in a Texas program run by Prison Fellowship, of the 80 prisoners who have thus far participated, an amazingly low five percent are back in prison.

Some years ago, a Public Health Service study showed that Teen Challenge's drug treatment program, which is strongly Christian, was much more effective than its secular counterpart. In 1999, a Northwestern University doctoral student again studied Teen Challenge in a carefully controlled empirical study and found it more effective than its counterparts.

My wide examination of the relevant literature has yet to reveal a single study that has shown secular programs outperforming similar or parallel faith-based programs. The evidence—sometimes dramatically and sometimes modestly—has always pointed in the opposite direction.

In addition, numerous studies have shown religious belief and practice to be positively correlated with a host of desirable social characteristics such as lower illegitimacy rates, lower divorce rates, higher marital satisfaction, lower suicide rates, lower poverty rates, higher levels of self-esteem, and more. Here the evidence is overwhelming. Religious youths, for example, have been found to be much less likely to engage in delinquent behavior.

Given the evidence, it seems reasonable, by extension, to expect that faith-based programs working with people who experience social ills will bring with them an added resource and degree of effectiveness that secular programs do not have. Nevertheless, the objection can still be raised that we do not yet know for sure; there is no real "proof" that faith-based programs are more effective. Consequently, the argument goes, there is insufficient reason to launch out into a new policy direction.

If this reasoning were applied to all public policy proposals, few if any would ever be launched. In the real world of policy making, where information is missing, cause and effect is murky, and the future is unknowable, "proof" of effectiveness is rarely present beforehand. Policy makers must, of necessity, act on the basis of incomplete evidence, individual cases, intuition, common sense, and whatever other skills they can bring to the table. Policy making is more an art than a science.

This is true whether the question is one of a new anti-drug program in the schools, lowering taxes as an economic stimulant, intervening militarily in overseas drug operations, increasing penalties on drunk drivers, and most other policy initiatives. There is no reason to set the bar of empirical proof higher for faith-based initiatives than for other new public policy programs.

The real question is this: Do we know enough to proceed with the proposed new policy while monitoring its implementation and evaluating its results as we go? In the case of President Bush's faith-based initiative, there are enough studies pointing in the direction of the effectiveness of faith-based efforts to answer that question with a clear Yes. These studies are buttressed by the intuitive, common-sense idea that people suffering from drug addiction, grinding poverty, incarceration, and other ills can benefit from the loving, caring, challenging, life-changing emphases that religious faith at its best brings to the table.

This is enough to justify getting started. As the president moves ahead and as researchers focus more attentively on faith-based programs, we will learn more than we know now and can make whatever adjustments are needed. For a public eager to see its tax dollars used successfully to deal with seemingly intractable social ills, faith-based programs offer hope. Even more importantly, these programs offer real hope for those trapped in drug addiction, poverty, criminal behavior, and homelessness.

[Professor Monsma teaches political science at Pepperdine University and serves as a trustee of the Center for Public Justice. He is currently engaged in an effectiveness study of faith-based social programs. Among his books is When Sacred and Secular Mix: Religious Nonprofit Organizations and Public Money (1996).]