Faith, hope, charity

Since George Bush was installed as president he has made it clear he would like to see all social welfare programmes administered by religious organisations. Where Bush leads Blair follows, says Paul Johnson.   

Tony Blair was the first prime minister since Margaret Thatcher to address a joint session of Congress. Blair’s speech was notable, as one CNNcommentator described it, for its “evangelical” nature.

This tone was not out of place in Washington. Since Bush assumed the presidency in 2001 he has proposed that all social welfare programmes should be based on a faith-based model. This means that in order to get help for your older relative, child or family member, a mentally ill relative or physically disabled individual, you need to go through a faith-based organisation. What we have here is that these categories are all what might once have been called the “deserving poor”. Things get somewhat more complicated if you have a substance abuse problem, are homeless, gay, or an immigrant as these categories are considered undeserving. Yet, the premise of president Bush’s plan is that all services should be administered through a religious affiliated programme.

In other words, there are several conditions attached to obtaining these services. Such a situation must present social workers with some ethical dilemmas. Who are they serving? Are they serving their clients or the religious persuasions of the respective agencies? We talk of social workers as being non-judgemental, respectful and empowering their clients. However, if we adopt this faith-based approach are we not turning back the profession to the friendly visitors of the 19th century, who would make home visits and impose their own values on those whom they were meeting?

The plan marks a strategic shift for the US government, making private and faith-based charities the administration’s first line of defence against social problems such as poverty, addiction and homelessness. As the president himself would have it: “Real change starts street by street, heart by heart – one soul, one conscience at a time.”

However, the other extremely troubling aspect of this philosophy is that against this religious backdrop, social problems are once again being viewed in moral terms, and that this preoccupation with morality, is once again precluding the real explanations of social problems, such as employment and an undisciplined economy.

Blair has now passed Clement Attlee’s record of six years and 92 days in power, becoming the longest continuously serving Labour prime minister. He has also compared his government’s achievements to those of Attlee’s 1945 administration. However, from this side of the pond, I don’t see many similarities between Blair’s administration and Attlee’s. But there are similarities between the rhetoric of Bush and Blair.

I hope the prime minister does not adopt these simple moral conceptions of social welfare problems, or before long you in the UK could also be talking about faith-based services, and the deserving and undeserving poor.

Paul Johnson is assistant professor, school of social work, University of Southern Maine.


One of George Bush’s first acts upon taking office was to establish a White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, to take the lead in promoting, strengthening and expanding grassroots and faith-based services. The President has also instructed five cabinet agencies (Health and Human Services, Housing and Urban Development, Justice, Education, and Labour) to review their policies and programmes to remove obstacles that might prevent faith-based organisations from entering into partnerships with the federal government.

More from Community Care

Comments are closed.