Pubdate: Tue, 24 Apr 2001
Source: New York Times (NY)
Copyright: 2001 The New York Times Company
Section: Politics
Author: Laurie Goodstein


PHILADELPHIA -- In his office at the University of Pennsylvania, Prof. 
Byron R. Johnson has just shut off the electronic chirp on his computer 
that announced every incoming e-mail message. It was chirping more than 80 
times a day, joining the ringing telephone in contrapuntal distraction.

Mr. Johnson is suddenly in demand because he is among the few social 
scientists who have tried to measure the influence of religion on social 
problems. Less than a year ago, he joined the Center for Research on 
Religion and Urban Civil Society, the institute started by his fellow 
criminologist John J. DiIulio Jr. Not long after his arrival, though, Mr. 
Johnson was left alone; Mr. DiIulio went to Washington to lead the new 
White House Office on Faith-Based and Community Initiatives.

Now, with Congress holding hearings on the Bush plan on Tuesday, Mr. 
Johnson is being deluged with requests for the research to support the 
assertions made by President Bush and other politicians that religious 
programs can transform the lives of drug addicts, criminals, welfare 
recipients and troubled teenagers, and that it can do so for less money 
than government programs.

The truth, Mr. Johnson and many other social scientists say, is that there 
is little reliable research proving the effectiveness of religious 
programs. They also add that there is scant evidence showing which 
religious programs show the best results and how they stack up against 
secular programs.

"From the left to the right, everyone assumes that faith-based programs 
work," Mr. Johnson said. "Even the critics of DiIulio and his office 
haven't denied that. We hear that and just sit back and laugh. In terms of 
empirical evidence that they work, it's pretty much nonexistent.

"We've created an office out of anecdotes."

In the history of grand presidential initiatives, this would not be the 
first to take the stage without a script. But this one is different. A body 
of research is essential to the project's success for the simple reason 
that it would be unconstitutional for the government to decide which 
religious programs to finance based on theology or favoritism or 
familiarity. President Bush and Mr. DiIulio have frequently said that a 
record of effectiveness is the only viable measure.

No one denies that religious organizations and volunteers do indispensable 
work caring for people in need. For example, Mr. Johnson's colleague, Ram 
A. Cnaan, a professor of social work at the University of Pennsylvania, 
found that more than 90 percent of Philadelphia's congregations provided 
community services. There is also extensive research showing the benefits 
of faith: religious people cope better with old age, sickness and hardship; 
they are healthier; they drink less alcohol; they volunteer more.

Mr. Johnson pulls reports off his shelves with more evidence: religious 
youths are less likely to use drugs, or be involved in crime. But these 
studies, he and other researchers say, do not prove if someone can get more 
help from a religious program than from a secular one.

Even large human service organizations like those affiliated with the 
United Way are only now beginning to measure the effectiveness of their 
work, said William H. Wubbenhorst, technical director for ORC Macro 
International, a consulting firm in Maryland. For years, groups that did 
keep records tracked only how many people they had served or how much time 
they spent with clients.

"They'll hand you a three-page in-house report," Mr. Johnson said, "showing 
that they reached 1,300 people that year. But what does 'reach' mean? 
That's not going to cut it."

One program that has opened itself to scrutiny is Teen Challenge, which 
treats nearly 3,000 drug and alcohol addicts annually in 150 centers around 
the country. The group says the secret to its success is what it calls the 
Jesus factor.

In 1995, Teen Challenge helped Aaron Todd Bicknese, a doctoral student at 
Northwestern University, track down 59 people one to two years after they 
had completed Teen Challenge's yearlong residential program. Mr. Bicknese 
compared them with a similar group of addicts who had spent one or two 
months in a hospital rehabilitation program.

The results were favorable to Teen Challenge, which posted a simplified 
summary of the dissertation on its Web site concluding that it had an 86 
percent success rate. In recent months, politicians and evangelical leaders 
have used that figure to assert that religious programs are superior to 
secular ones.

Mr. Bicknese found that Teen Challenge graduates reported returning to drug 
use less often than the hospital program graduates, but not less than the 
hospital program graduates who continued attending Alcoholics Anonymous 
support groups (which some also consider to be religious because of their 
reference to a "higher power").

He also found that Teen Challenge graduates were far more likely to be 
employed (18 of the 59 worked at Teen Challenge itself, which relies on 
former clients to run the program).

Social scientists have pointed out that the 86 percent success rate of Teen 
Challenge is misleading. It does not count the people who dropped out 
during the program. And like many religious and private charities, Teen 
Challenge picks its clients.

Before they are accepted, most of the addicts have already been through 
detoxification programs, said the Rev. John D. Castellani, president of 
Teen Challenge International U.S.A. In the program's first four-month 
phase, Mr. Castellani said, 25 to 30 percent drop out, and in the next 
eight months, 10 percent more leave.

This raises questions for David Reingold, a researcher at the Indiana 
University School of Public and Environmental Affairs. A study Mr. Reingold 
has just completed of social services in Indiana found that religious 
programs are more likely than their secular counterparts to limit the 
clientele they serve. As a result, Mr. Reingold said, "It's an extreme 
exaggeration to say that religious organizations are more effective."

Mr. Wubbenhorst said the lack of reliable studies should not derail the 
president's plan. "I believe the initiative should be viewed in the spirit 
of experimentation and innovation," he said.

Until now, studying religion's influence was "the kiss of death" for 
research proposals, Mr. Johnson said.

As Mr. Cnaan explained, "The religious foundations said the benefits of 
religion were too obvious, and the secular foundations wouldn't touch 

That is likely to change. Now, Mr. Johnson said, "we're going to have a 
chance to find out how effective faith-based groups are."

With that, he gathered up his papers and left for a meeting with a 
foundation that is considering giving him a multimillion-dollar research grant.
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MAP posted-by: Terry Liittschwager