December 16, 2004 | Commentary on Religion and Civil Society, Civil Society

Churches, Charity, and Civil Society

A century ago, Harvard psychologist William James rocked the academic world with his insights into the potency of religious ideals and religious experience. Though a pragmatist and a skeptic, James was deeply moved by the lives of people transformed through a profession of faith. "St. Paul long ago made our ancestors familiar with the idea that every soul is virtually sacred," James wrote in The Varieties of Religious Experience. "The belief in the essential sacredness of every one expresses itself today in all sorts of human customs and reformatory institutions. … The saints, with their extravagance of human tenderness, are the great torch-bearers of this belief, the tip of the wedge, the clearers of the darkness."

It's a sign of the times that James' unremarkable observations about religion have become so contested. Critics have assailed President Bush's "faith-based initiative," for example, not only on church-state grounds but on the assumption that religious organizations don't offer any distinctive resources to people in need. Indeed, many thinkers are agnostic, even cynical, about the link between faith and social stability. In the wake of 9/11, theologians and religious studies scholars such as Charles Kimball (When Religion Becomes Evil) went so far as to label truth claims in the public square as a telltale sign of the corruption of religion. Nevertheless, Bush has forced a national debate over religion and government social policy. "I believe it is in the national interest that government stand side by side with people of faith who work to change lives for the better," he told supporters at a recent White House conference on his initiative. "I'm telling America we need not discriminate against faith-based programs."

Three recent books suggest that the argument over the Bush agenda is far from over. In Of Little Faith: The Politics of George W. Bush's Faith-Based Initiative, political science professors Amy Black, Douglas Koopman, and David Ryden recount the twists and turns of the initiative over a three-year period. Based on interviews with key players in the White House and Congress, the book explains in exacting detail why the president's legislative effort flopped. There's plenty of blame to go around. Supporters introduced their bill too quickly, the authors claim, and House Republicans retooled it as a "payoff to the GOP's traditional religious base." At the same time, liberal Democrats were desperate to prevent a Bush victory that might draw away African American voters, who mostly love the idea. "The mischaracterizations and distortions that marked the debate were more than mere ignorance or uncertainty about the law," the authors conclude. "They reflected intentional political strategies designed to ensure defeat of the proposal." Of Little Faith offers even-handed analysis that nonetheless rejects the "crabbed version of religion" which colors so much public discourse.

In A Revolution of Compassion, Dave Donaldson and Stanley Carlson-Thies deliver a sturdy apologia for the president's agenda. They sketch the history and accomplishments of the initiative and examine the obstacles that remain. Carlson-Thies, who served in the White House Office of Faith-based and Community Initiatives, brings to the issue a sober and straightforward style. Donaldson, founder of We Care America, keeps the responsibility of congregations always in view. The authors take note of the hostility to religion in public life (with a bizarre story of churches turned away by grief counselors on 9/11), though they place the burden of reform on the evangelical community. "Why have so many churches-unfettered in this country to be as generous as they wish toward their hurting neighbors-done so little to help the poor?" they ask. Good question.

A Revolution of Compassion lacks the prophetic bite of Ron Sider's Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger (aimed at the church's embrace of capitalism) or the trenchant critique of Marvin Olasky's The Tragedy of American Compassion (aimed at the welfare state). Instead, much of the work is a practical guide for churches and charities seeking government or corporate support for their outreach. The authors recommend, for example, that organizations avoid becoming dependent on public funding and offer a warning: "When it comes time to sign the paperwork for the money, you need to have an experienced and faith-friendly lawyer looking over your shoulder." A Revolution of Compassion may not read like Paine's Common Sense, but it aspires toward a radical rethinking of America's social-safety net-a rejection both of the liberal welfare state and the libertarian dream of a privatized system of charity. "Government does have a proper place," the authors write. "Yet government is no substitute for caring neighbors and friends, thriving businesses that provide jobs and careers … and faith-based organizations that show God's love as they teach skills or help a person escape an addiction."

Princeton sociologist Robert Wuthnow isn't as sanguine. In Saving America? Faith-Based Services and the Future of Civil Society, Wuthnow uses survey data and qualitative research to explore the character and capacity of faith-based organizations. He frames his research findings as a challenge both to advocates and to critics of the president's initiative. Yet his tortuous arguments cast doubt on nearly every important aspect of religiously inspired social outreach.

One of Wuthnow's main conclusions, for example, is that church-state watchdogs don't have much to worry about-because most faith-based organizations aren't very religious after all. He suggests that the most valuable asset of church-based charities is that they foster social relationships, not that they inculcate religious ideals. Wuthnow is right to emphasize the relational aspect of social ministries, and hardly any researcher has explored this dimension of religious commitment as carefully as he has. But his broad conclusion, that these organizations function in ways which "depend little on their connections with religious traditions," is grossly overstated. Wuthnow relies too heavily on a survey of human service agencies in New York City, which found scant evidence that groups were engaged in "religious advocacy"-meaning evangelism or discrimination of recipients on religious grounds. That's a shallow view of how religious values might inform programs for the poor. Another problem is a skewed sample: New York, arguably a command post for secularization, is militant about enforcing church-state separation in publicly funded services.

Behind Wuthnow's work creeps an assumption: that neither churches nor faith-based charities are adept at assuming a much greater role in meeting social needs. Indeed, at times he seems to denigrate the emphasis on character and personal responsibility that typifies evangelical organizations. He slights groups that assist prison inmates, for example, because they believe that convicted felons "are supposedly there as a result of their own actions." He laments the fact that many people view religious truths as "an unrivaled source of personal meaning and purpose" in life. He downgrades the importance of small-scale acts of service compared to the organizational capacity of the welfare state. "Religious programs … often encourage people to think more compassionately about the poor," he writes, "but they channel this thinking in individualistic ways that may encourage charity more than public advocacy on behalf of the poor." Does Wuthnow really think that an unwed mother facing eviction prefers the help of a welfare lobbyist over that of Mother Teresa's Sisters of Mercy?

It all makes the reader wonder what kinds of organizations find their way into Wuthnow's research-and why. They don't bear much resemblance to the tough-minded poverty-fighters profiled in the works of Marvin Olasky (Renewing American Compassion), Charles Glenn (The Ambiguous Embrace), Joel Schwartz (Fighting Poverty With Virtue), or Barbara Elliott (Street Saints). Nor do they look like those this reviewer has encountered over the last ten years of research and interviews. Social scientists rightly believe that many "faith-based" organizations are about as religious as fly-fishing clubs along the Great Basin stillwaters. Wuthnow acknowledges great diversity among charitable groups, but he seems to camp on the most secularized varieties, those heavily involved with public funding. Left unexamined, however, is what his data suggest about the vast number of religious programs unattached to government-the very groups the Bush initiative hopes to engage.

What might all of this mean for policymakers? The books reviewed here reflect the current argument, ranging from those who want a vast expansion of church-state partnerships to those who see only a marginal role for religion in social services. A recent front-page article in the New York Times, about a ministry to California prisoners led by Saddleback Community Church, suggests where the tide might be heading. The article quoted a prison official impressed by evangelical Christians helping inmates abandon careers in crime and drug abuse. "We manage behavior very well," he told the Times. "But we've not done as much trying to change and shape behavior. That's what these guys are doing effectively." That sounds a lot like the observations of William James. What captured his interest most were stories of encounters with the divine: a religious experience that transforms the human heart and makes possible an entirely new set of choices about one's life.

Government may not be able to finance this kind of work, but neither should it hinder or demean it. "Let us agree, then," James wrote, "that Religion, occupying herself with personal destinies and keeping thus in contact with the only absolute realities which we know, must necessarily play an eternal part in human history." Religion as an eternal part of the human story. Yes-for all the public disagreement, let us agree on that.

Mr. Loconte is a fellow at the Heritage Foundation and editor of "The End of Illusions: Religious Leaders Confront Hitler's Gathering Storm" (Rowman & Littlefield).

About the Author

Joseph Loconte William E. Simon Fellow in Religion and a Free Society

First appeared in ChristianityToday.com