Unleashing or Harnessing Armies of Compassion?: Reflections on the Faith-Based Initiative

67 Pages Posted: 10 Mar 2008

See all articles by Linda C. McClain

Linda C. McClain

Boston University - School of Law


A central tenet of President George W. Bush's faith-based initiative, launched in 2001, is that the federal government, by entering into more partnerships with religious and community organizations, should put the power of faith to work to solve pressing social problems. Proponents of the initiative have invoked the eighteenth-century French writer Alexis de Tocqueville's famous observations about the American propensity to join various voluntary associations as well as the Catholic principle of subsidiarity. Seven years into the faith-based initiative, challenging questions remain about what, exactly, it means to put faith to work. Such questions deserve attention, given the institutionalization of the initiative at the federal and state level and given that the unfolding presidential campaign for the 2008 election reveals varying degrees of support by both the Republican and the Democratic candidates for continuing the initiative. Questions concerning the expanded use of partnerships with religious organizations by the government are, in a sense, questions about separation of powers - not the conventional tripartite division within government of executive, judiciary, and legislature, but the relationship between governmental power and that of religious organizations. The faith-based initiative invites consideration of the place of religious institutions in society, especially as proponents of the initiative seek to enlist them, as partners with government, to shore up other parts of civil society, such as the family, because of their unique capacity to do so.

This article reflects on the faith-based initiative by using the contrasting images of unleashing and harnessing the power of faith. Unleashing armies of compassion appeals to government setting free the unique power of faith so that, unfettered, faith-based groups may proceed in their own way, so long as they get the results that government wants. By contrast, harnessing connotes utilizing, in the sense of yoking or attaching some mechanism to steer or control. The tension between these images reflects ongoing disagreement about the proper place and scope of such partnerships in our constitutional democracy. This Article contends that unleashing and harnessing both have a role to play in public-private partnerships between government and religious groups, but that the faith-based initiative, as championed and implemented to date, has emphasized unleashing at the expense of harnessing. These contrasting images help to get at whether faith matters primarily as motive, or as method or message. The article raises a series of questions about why faith matters in social-service provisions, drawing on some recent empirical studies. It also examines the place of public values and purposes in public-private partnerships and addresses subsidiarity and issues of institutional design.

Keywords: Faith-based initiative, public-private partnership, religion, welfare, subsidiarity, civil society, separation of powers, government contracts, de Tocqueville

JEL Classification: K19, K39, K49

Suggested Citation

McClain, Linda C., Unleashing or Harnessing Armies of Compassion?: Reflections on the Faith-Based Initiative. Loyola University Chicago Law Journal, Vol. 39, p. 361, 2008, Boston Univ. School of Law Working Paper No. 08-11, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1104646

Linda C. McClain (Contact Author)

Boston University - School of Law ( email )

765 Commonwealth Avenue
Boston, MA 02215
United States

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