Threat From the South: Is American Religion Bad News for Canadian Social Welfare?

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Threat From the South:

Is American Religion Bad News for Canadian Social Welfare?

Many around the world, including Canadians, greeted the recent election in the US with dismay. On a host of issues, including the war in Iraq, same-sex marriage, health care, poverty, the environment, and immigration, polls have documented the growing divergence of values between Canadians and Americans (Adams, 2003, 2005). Further, the election results raised troubling questions about the increasingly influential role of religion in public policy (Caputo, 2005). In particular, social workers and others have raised concerns about how social welfare gains made in the last half of the twentieth century have been eroded, as governments, under pressure from right wing, conservative, and often, religious forces, have undermined and dismantled social welfare institutions and programs. This paper briefly describes major recent advances in the role of religion in social welfare policy in the USA (Tangenberg, 2005; Wuthnow, 2004) and analyzes this trend with specific reference to the implications for social welfare policy in Canada.

Religion and Social Welfare Policy in the US

Buried in the controversy of the 1996 welfare reform legislation1 – in which former President Bill Clinton made good on his promise to “end welfare as we know it” (Noble, 1997, p. 127) – was the innocuous section 104, dubbed “Charitable Choice”, which rewrote the regulations for federal funding of religious organizations that provided welfare services. Since then, the White House has continued to revamp funding relationships in order to “unleash the armies of compassion”, as President George W. Bush frequently describes these efforts (White House, 2005). Within weeks of being sworn into office in his first term, Bush established the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives (OFBCI). Since that time, Charitable Choice provisions have been extended via legislative amendments to several other federal programs including Welfare to Work, Community Services Block Grants, juvenile justice, drug and mental health services, and children’s and public health programs. Although several other legislative attempts have failed, faith-based centers have been established in at least ten federal departments, all of which have been busy rewriting funding regulations (Carlson-Thies, 2005: Daly, 2005).

At one level, these developments are a logical extension of larger trends over the past three decades in western democracies in which increasing recognition is being given to the role of civil society and nonprofit organizations in solving social problems (Berger & Neuhaus, 1996; Boris & Steuerle, 1999; Salamon, 1995; Seligman, 1992). In the US, the unique wrinkle has been an explosion of corresponding attention to the increasing role of religion, and specifically religious organizations (Bane, Coffin, & Thiemann, 2000; Davis & Hankins, 1999; Ellor, Netting, & Thibault, 1999; Glenn, 2000; Hall, 1998; Vanderwoerd, 2002a; Wuthnow, 2004). This recent attention represents one of the major changes in the social welfare landscape since the New Deal, and has been referred to benignly as the “newer deal,” (Cnaan, 1999) and, more ominously, as a “seismic change” whose purpose is “about helping churches, not about reducing poverty” (Daly, 2005). The central importance of religion in politics is aptly captured in the fact that in the wake of the 2004 election a book entitled God’s Politics (Wallis, 2005) has been on the New York Times bestseller list for months.

Are these developments south of the border a threat to Canada? Certainly there is evidence that Canadians view American religion – especially fundamentalism or evangelicals – cautiously if not outright suspiciously. After evangelical Stockwell Day won the leadership of the Canadian Alliance Party religion reporter Dennis Hoover (2000) observed that, “If the we-are-different-from-Americans sentiment is a mainstay of Canadian national identity ... when it comes to religion, no specter haunts Canada as much as American ‘fundamentalism’.” This observation is consistent with Lipset’s (1991) comparison of American and Canadian values, in which he observed that in religion, as in virtually every other area, there are marked differences between Americans and Canadians. Specifically with regard to fundamental Christians, Lipset (1991) concluded that, “Christian fundamentalism is significantly different in the two countries. In Canada it does not have the same media presence, numbers or influence as in the States” (p. 89). A more recent study (Reimer, 2003) of evangelicals corroborates the differences described by Lipset. Based on existing survey data and extensive interviews with evangelical “subcultures” on both sides of the border, Reimer concluded that, “American [evangelicals] are more conservative politically, and they are predominantly Republican. They believe that government is too big and they blame it for societal problems more often than Canadians do. American evangelicals list moral issues as the source of national and local problems more often than Canadians, who are more concerned about economic issues” (p. 159). The growth in influence of conservative evangelicals in American politics is perceived by Canadians as a potential threat to cherished characteristics such as the Canadian social welfare state and health care system. For example, Schick and colleagues (2004) link fundamentalism with violence, the rise of fascism, and the undermining of human rights, and note that, “not surprisingly, this same move parallels the rise of the Christian Right in the United States” (p. 8).

Despite increasingly divergent values from the USA, recent initiatives in Canada to document the scope and influence of the nonprofit and voluntary sector – including religious organizations – suggest that Canada is not immune to major shifts to the welfare state occurring in other industrialized countries (Gil & Thériault, 2003; Hall et al., 2004; Hiemstra, 2002; Lauzier, 2000; Nevitte, 2000; Scott, 2004; Voluntary Sector Initiative, 2000). Many observers seem to agree that in a post-Keynesian, post-Cold War, global economy, the twentieth century model of state-dominated approaches to welfare are no longer fiscally viable nor provide the best incentives and encouragement for solving compelling social problems (Chatterjee, 1999; Ilcan & Basok, 2004; Myles & Quadagno, 2002; Paul, Miller & Paul, 1997). This realization has renewed interest in the role of the voluntary sector – particularly the religious sector – in social welfare, and raised questions about the relationship between the public and the private sectors (de Bettignies & Ross, 2004; Drover, 2001; Jaco, 2001; Kramer, 2000; Lightman, 2003; Van Die, 2001).

What do these trends in the US portend for Canadian social welfare policy? Are they threats to be resisted, or opportunities to be embraced? Former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau’s famous phrase “sleeping with the elephant” captures Canada’s longstanding ambivalence with the USA and the perennial question of how closely Canada should be integrated with the USA (Hoberg, 2000). Should Canada emulate or resist the US pattern of increased partnerships between government and religion in addressing social problems? This paper raises three questions for consideration regarding the role of religion and its relationship with government in Canadian social welfare: 1) To what extent does government’s relationship with religion favour particular religious groups over others? 2) To what extent does government’s relationship with religious groups encourage or limit freedom of religious expression for individuals and groups? 3) To what extent does government’s relationship with religion indicate a retreat from state responsibility for addressing social problems? The paper concludes with an assessment of the threats and opportunities of these developments for Canadian social welfare, and suggests how the social work profession can respond.

An Overview of Canadian Social Welfare

Canadians who support social democratic policies often portray Canada as having a vastly more progressive social welfare state than the United States (Barlow & Campbell, 1995; McQuaig, 1995; Novick & Shillington, 1996). However, Esping-Andersen’s (1990) thorough empirical analysis shows that Canada is much closer to the liberal / individual social welfare regime exemplified by the United States than it is to social democratic regimes such as the Scandinavian countries or the Netherlands. The similarity between Canadian and American welfare state regimes is not surprising given their shared history of new world colonization, and in particular, the influence cast by their British origins. For example, both countries’ social welfare regimes bear the legacy of the English Poor Laws (for Canadian history see Guest, 1997; Meilicke & Storch, 1980; Turner, 2001; for American history see Axinn & Stern, 2001; Day, 2000; Jansson, 2005; Trattner, 1999).

Despite some similarities, however, the Canadian welfare state developed in quite different ways than its southern neighbor. One of the most profound differences was in the way that Canada became an independent country (Lipset, 1991). In contrast to American colonists’ emphasis on autonomy and independence from any government power (Jansson, 2005), Canadians had a much more conciliatory relationship with the British crown and tended to be more trusting of government powers. Hence the founding document of Canada, the British North America (BNA) Act of 1867, emphasized “peace, order, and good government,” and enshrined the most important powers and authority to the federal government (Banting, 1987). The development of Canada’s welfare state represents a gradual shift from a residual to an institutional approach (Guest, 1997). This development is another way in which the Canadian welfare state is similar to European countries and different from the US.

Canada’s development of a social welfare state was complicated by its system of federalism. Under the BNA Act, provinces were given jurisdiction over health, education, and social welfare on the assumption that these were relatively minor areas (Banting, 1987; Guest, 1997). Since then, the role of the federal government in these areas has been a matter of debate (Yelaja, 1992). By the end of the 1960s, the consensus–and practice–that emerged in the Canada Assistance Plan of 1966 was a complementary relationship in which the federal government shared the financial burden and also set national standards, while the provinces implemented and operated the programs. Since the mid-1980s, however, a number of pressures have resulted in a reduction of the federal government’s role in health, education, and social welfare. These pressures are similar to developments in other industrialized countries in the past three decades: stagflation in the 1970s, mounting public deficits in the 1980s, and the growing popularity of neo-conservative and neo-liberal ideologies advocating smaller government and a greater reliance on local government and the voluntary sector. In Canada, these pressures resulted in an end to the open-ended cost sharing agreement legislated by the Canada Assistance Plan and its replacement in 1995 with a block grant program called the Canada Health and Social Transfer [CHST] (Guest, 1997). Under the CHST, provinces have more power to set their own priorities for welfare programs; they also have less federal money to help pay for programs. Consequently, the federal government has less ability to set or enforce national standards, and provinces have greater freedom to implement more restrictive and punitive regulations in an effort to find savings.

As Canadians faced the so-called “crisis” of the welfare state (Mishra, 1999), many turned their attention to the “voluntary”, “independent” or “third sector” as a solution or alternative to the welfare state (Brock, 2000a, 2000b; Hall & Banting, 2000), paralleling developments in the U.S. and Britain. Few basic details are known, however, about the role of this sector in Canada’s social welfare regime (Valverde, 1995). Consequently, the current debate in Canada about the future of the welfare state appears to be focused on two issues: (a) major initiatives by government, academics, and nonprofit organizations to conduct research on the extent, nature, activities, and impact of nonprofit organizations (Brock, 2000b; LeRoy, Clemens & Gudelot, 2004; Orr, 1999), and (b) efforts to defend the traditional federally-driven welfare state and resist “offloading” to the voluntary and private sectors (Jackson, 2000; Townson, 1999). What is missing in these discussions is a more nuanced understanding of the relationship between the so-called voluntary sector and government, and how specifically religious organizations fit in. Valverde (1995), for example, argues that, “in the social services sector there is not one public/private split, but many. “Privatization” is a misleading term as applied to social services, particularly if we do not specify if we mean private funding, private service delivery, private management, private policy development” (p. 54). Similarly, Maurutto’s (2003) study of the role of Catholic charities in Toronto’s social services refutes the secularization story of Canadian social welfare in which religion allegedly gave way in the 1920s and 30s to the establishment of a scientific social work.
Three Questions

This analysis of the role of religion in Canadian social welfare, and religion’s relationship to government, is guided by the three questions mentioned at the outset. The first two questions are derived from “disestablishment” theories originating in the British Isles and the American colonies (Esbeck, 2004; Noll, 2002), and which were influential in leading to the formal separation of church and state in Canada in 1854 (Choquette, 2004). Disestablishment is the term coined in the 18th century to describe the rationale for the separation of church and state as part of the larger intellectual and philosophical developments of enlightenment liberalism (Nisbet, 1982). As western European nation states made the transition from feudalism and state-established religion to modern-day capitalist democracies, two principles emerged to guide the relationship between church and state and attempt to protect individual rights and freedom of religion. These two principles are known as the “establishment” principle and the “free exercise” principle, and are captured succinctly in the two clauses of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution which reads in part that: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof” (Constitution of the United States of America, Amendment 1).

The third question shifts the analysis from religion to social welfare. The histories of social welfare and religion have always been intertwined. The story of the social work profession is in part the story of how informal helping, often by religiously motivated individuals, gradually gave way to formalized systems of care by educated professionals sanctioned and funded by government (Christie, 2005). Models of the welfare state developed in the mid-20th century institutionalized the shift from communities and churches to the state as the primary institution responsible for addressing social problems (Chatterjee, 1999). Thus, the third question addresses the extent to which these recent trends reflect a regression to systems of welfare regarded as antiquated and inadequate.

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