EDITOR’S NOTE: The following lecture was presented at Grove City College on Feb. 19, 2004, as part of the Bible and American Society Lecture Series.
Twelve years ago, a constitutional law professor by the name of Stephen Carter from Yale University wrote a best seller entitled The Culture of Disbelief: The Trivialization of Religion in the Public Square. Now, 12 years later, there is a White House office on faith-based initiatives that has centers in several of the cabinet departments. Just 12 years later, the first executive order signed by President George W. Bush created this faith-based office. Just 12 years later, Harvard University had an institute for religious community development, University of Southern California had an institution for the study of religion and civic culture, the University of Pennsylvania, Yale University and other bastions of secular humanistic education all of a sudden had religion. The President wants to marshal the armies of compassion. And even the liberal Democratic presidential candidates have decided that religion is important.
What happened? How did we go from a culture of disbelief to a place where religious institutions have taken an active role in the way we think about public life? How did we move from the trivialization of religion in the public square to the utilization of the benefits of faith-based initiatives in restoring broken and disadvantaged communities?
I suggest to you that there are four different arenas of activity in which events occurred that brought us to the present situation. There is the arena of the academy where research began to take religion seriously. There is the arena of business where those involved in the financial development and responsibilities for growing businesses in this country discovered the nonprofit sector. There is the arena of government where two very different groups of people began to lobby for inclusion of religious institutions: one, a group that was only interested in reducing government spending and another that was looking for new institutional configurations to help the poor. The fourth arena is the arena of religious institutions themselves.
The Academy Finds Value in Religion
What happened in the academy? In 1986, Harvard economist Richard Friedman was looking for ways to strengthen urban economic development. Friedman began looking at social relationships in disadvantaged communities for ways to strengthen their social capital so that money would circulate more effectively within those neighborhoods. He was especially interested in the high unemployment rates among young African-American males in those communities. Looking at the lives of these adolescent black males, he discovered an interesting correlation between involvement in religious activity and certain kinds of social behavior. He discovered that if an African-American male went to church, he was more likely to do well in school, less likely to be involved in drugs and alcohol, more likely to find good employment and less likely to be involved in promiscuous sexual activity. Not many people paid attention to Friedman’s assertions; after all, he was writing during the era of the culture of disbelief. But there were other scholars who began to stumble not only onto Friedman’s research but also research that supported Friedman’s claims and even took them beyond correlation to causality. John Dilulio of Princeton University was one of the first to expand Friedman’s research from correlation to causality to confirm the power of religious institutions as an agent in social change.
Dilulio, a Harvard Ph.D. teaching at Princeton, raised on the tough streets of South Philadelphia, was given a six- figure grant to study this critical question: is there a correlation between the presence of liquor stores in a neighborhood and crime? The remarkable discovery that Dilulio made, which was fairly obvious before the study, was that the more liquor stores there were on a particular block the higher the crime rate; the fewer liquor stores, the lower the crime rate. But something else caught Dilulio’s eye as he began to map out his study. He saw that there were certain blocks in the city he was studying that had fewer crimes per capita than other blocks. He discovered that on these blocks there were churches – religious institutions. Just as there was a positive correlation between the presence of a liquor store and the high crime rate on a particular block, there was also a correlation between the presence of a church on a given block acting as a deterrent to crime. It didn’t matter how large or small the church was, whether or not it had an outreach to youth, or whether it was open only on Sundays; its very presence was the deterrent. Dilulio was hooked and began looking at religious institutions and the solutions they had developed for keeping crime low in particular communities.
At DePaul, a Catholic university, Carl Esbeck, then a constitutional law professor at the University of Missouri, was invited to come and discuss the constitutionality of supporting religious institutions with federal funds to do good social work. Esbeck is an evangelical Christian with sympathies towards the funding of religious institutions. The Catholic universities were interested in this because they wanted more support for Catholic charities and Catholic social services, and they were convinced that many of the government policies were discriminatory. The opportunity to present his findings so energized Dr. Esbeck that he began making this presentation in several places. It was heard by a staff member for John Ashcroft, then a senator in the state of Missouri, as well as by a research fellow at the Center for Public Justice, a public policy think tank whose conviction is that Christ calls us to be civically engaged. Working together, they crafted legislation that Ashcroft eventually adopted and placed into the 1996 Welfare Reform Act, now called Charitable Choice, leveling the playing field with respect to federal funding for religious versus secular nonprofit agencies.
More interesting research came from a University of Pennsylvania professor of social work and a native of Israel, Ram Cnaan. He was intrigued upon coming to the United States to find that many of the services that the European poor depended upon from their governments were being provided by churches here. Soup kitchens, clothing closets and food pantries were all handled by government agencies in the countries Cnaan had studied in Europe, while in the United States churches were doing these works. He was fascinated by this realization and began to quantify the amount of money it would take to replace the social services provided by churches, synagogues and mosques if they were removed from every urban neighborhood. He came up with a fascinating figure. Using his understanding of how much it costs to underwrite social work services, everything from infrastructure to personnel to the cost of material actually being distributed, Cnaan calculated that the average urban church provides $140,000 worth of social service in a given year to its constituents. To remove 100 churches from the average city would therefore cost that city $1.4 million to replace the social services provided by those churches. These were some of the academy’s findings.
Business Supports Successful Faith-Based Initiatives
In the second arena, what part did business play? The ‘90s economy took a major upswing, as all of us know, making more money available to do more things. But the people who were making the money in the ‘90s, the young executives of the dot.com industries, the technology industries, the research industries and the new service economy, had a kinder and gentler way of approaching the fact that they were making more money. They recognized a responsibility to give back to society and they began to enter the world of philanthropy. They were convinced that philanthropy had failed the poor by pouring money into programs that did not work, programs that were cited for measurable outputs when they should have been evaluated for measurable outcomes – an important distinction. The social service agencies and the social programs were being funded based on how many people they served, not on how well they were doing and whether or not they actually made a difference. These new philanthropists decided there needed to be a shift towards outcomes. After all, it was in looking at outcomes that they were able to change the economy in the ‘90s and make more money. Foundations that took off in the ‘90s included the Annie E. Casey Foundation located in Baltimore, Md. Their money comes from UPS. The founders of UPS put all of their philanthropic weight into helping poor families but doing it in a matter consistent with the best of their business practices – looking at measurable outcomes. They would not provide funding for a program unless it could be demonstrated in the best of the research tradition that the program worked.
Community foundations that once would not touch religion with a 10-foot pole all of a sudden began hiring people with background and expertise in religious programming. Many cities developed faith-based interest groups among the program officers of those foundations. Older foundations that had been involved in religion reorganized their programs for greater effectiveness. The Ford Foundation expanded its giving to include a special initiative working with African-American churches. The Pew Charitable Trusts began to expand its religion giving to include public policy initiatives. Once they proved they were effective, more of the available money found its way into faith-based institutions as a way of solving social problems.
Government Enters the Picture
The third arena, as I mentioned before, is government. Two different groups within the government began to call on religious institutions to play a more centralized role in solving social problems. The first group wanted social services cut in order to save money. Their primary concern was that the government was perpetuating a culture of poverty by investing the hard-earned dollars of Middle America in programs in the inner city and among the rural poor that simply didn’t work. One of the problems with this position was that these cuts were very minimal if they were looked at as a total of the entire federal budget. They amounted to less than half of 1 percent.
In a book entitled Fine Print, published by the Brookings Institution, author John Dilulio and his colleagues argued that there would be a minimal savings in federal spending. However, the programs were still necessary and therefore they would have to be picked up by the private sector and by the secular nonprofits, not to mention those religious institutions that were beginning to creep onto the radar screen. Dilulio concluded that there were no actual savings to the American public. It simply meant that the private sector would have to generate more income or the cuts would deeply affect the social fabric of inner city and rural poor neighborhoods.
Some then came forward with the notion that churches could step in and bridge the gap. After all, they had been working with the poor, doing what has been characterized as Christian charity over the centuries. Plus, since they work with volunteers, churches are cheaper. They are motivated by their religious commitments. Researchers at Johns Hopkins then looked at the amount of money the churches would need to raise in order to make up the gap in federal spending on welfare. The conclusion they came to was that the average church would have to increase its offering by 120 percent. That was not going to happen!
Reducing government spending was one of the motivations for drawing the church in. But there were others within government that had nobler motives. They sought to reorder the configuration of government and its relationship to other institutions to get the job done more efficiently and with a quality of life that transcends the traditional client-institution relationship that most government agencies and the vendors they fund provide. They began to investigate not only large congregations, which would mirror their secular counterparts, but also small to mid-size ones as well. They cited a study from DePaul University done by my colleague, Cynthia Milsap, which suggested that storefront churches have been doing incredible work on quality of life issues that their larger counterparts were not able to do. A larger church could feed more people in its soup kitchen but, according to Milsap, a smaller church that fed fewer people had more intimate contact with the people they served. In the small churches in the communities in Chicago studied by Dr. Milsap, a person coming in for food was more likely to also get a conversation and a hug and not just simply be seen as someone on the food assembly line. Dr. Milsap’s research revealed that the larger the church, the more likely that service was to be impersonal and client-based and not relational – not neighbor-based. Neighbor, friend – those are Bible words. There were those in government who took this research and searched for ways to partner with the smaller congregations who did not have the infrastructure, the grant- writing apparatus. So this is part of the picture of how we got into our current situation with faith-based institutions.
Within that same arena, Charitable Choice legislation emerged. The HUD office of faith-based initiatives opened. It’s important to realize that the first office of faith-based initiatives opened in the federal government under the Clinton administration, not under the Bush administration. And the first federal legislation that took faith-based initiatives seriously actually came under George Bush, Sr.’s administration – the Child Care Act of 1990 that provided for the regulation and the strengthening of child care across the board but specifically within churches and synagogues. As of 2003, four different areas of federal programming were covered under the charitable choice act: drug and alcohol programs, jobs training, life skills management and community development block grants. Now President Bush has a $300 million healthy families initiative that also seeks to take advantage of the presence of the church. Government got religion. Businesses got religion. The academy got religion. And religion got religion. In fact, religion always had religion – feeding the poor, caring for the sick and the dying, ministering to the homeless, providing affordable housing for the poor, job development and entrepreneurial programming. All of these continued as they had before. Some of the programs that religious institutions were doing were structural, some were individual, some were preventative and some were intervention, but they were doing them all along.
The Challenge to Faith-Based Initiatives
The challenge in bringing these religious institutions into partnership with the other three – education, business and government – is that they want them to be faith-based without the faith. They want the benefit of the God of our institutions without God himself. The partnerships seek to dilute faith-based institutions to the point where they simply are social welfare agencies but smaller. And that’s the challenge of the church as we enter into this new era of partnership. They ignore the fact that the motivation for what is done by the churches comes out of biblical faith and that within the biblical faith tradition there are two components that must accompany any social intervention strategy. The first is the prophetic tradition.
The Judeo-Christian tradition and the Bible of our churches has much to say about our prophetic tradition. It’s not simply a personal biblical faith in which God is involved in one’s personal activity but has no implications for social change. The integrity of the prophetic tradition, however, says that the Bible has something to say about the whole of social arrangement and social convention. Basic fundamental challenges to poverty are unleashed by Amos, Isaiah and their cohorts in the time of national Israel; and critiques of slavery and of economic conditions are implicit in the books of Thessalonians and Galatians. The Bible has much to say about social arrangements. When, in the public square, religious institutions in general and Christian churches in particular are simply reduced to social service agencies, prophecies begin to cease. American history is rife with examples such as Charles Finney, William Lloyd Garrison, Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, Henry Highland Garnett, Martin Luther King and others for whom charity was to be matched with a prophetic voice that critiqued the social arrangements that made that charity necessary. The study of the Bible for Finney, for Garrison, for Douglass, for Garnett, for King and for others was in the context in which the Bible provided the stuff of the prophetic vision that enabled them to critique the current reality.
The second thing that biblical faith calls for that social service cannot provide is worship. One of the things that charitable choice says is that the money that goes into faith-based organizations cannot be used for worship, and I agree with that. I agree that we should not have government money supporting our worship services and we should not get federal grants to strengthen our music ministry. At the same time, research shows that the ability to sustain any meaningful social witness is tied to the ability of a congregation to strengthen its social witness in worship. If it’s not celebrated within the Sunday morning or the Sabbath worship experience, it will not be sustained. It is an interesting lesson of the social gospel era that those institutions that emerged to help the poor that did not make worship a critical part of their life eventually left the church and became, for all intents and purposes, secular agencies. How do you spell social service without worship? YMCA. It is within the context of worship that the most meaningful Christian doctrine, the most meaningful Christian activity, and the most meaningful sense of the Christian self and community is articulated. And unless that can be connected to any form of social engagement, it will fall short of the biblical witness and it will disintegrate into an unhealthy divorce.
Now we won’t all agree on what the Bible says we ought to do about society, but I’d rather have the debate over its truth and over how it relates to society than to have its absence from the discussion. I’d rather us get involved in a discussion over what the Bible says about social activism and social witnessing than to allow it to be trivialized as a source of reflection on social change. The debate over the Bible takes the Bible seriously as a resource for reflection on what we see, not as a proof text for political platforms. Both Democrats and Republicans betray a captivity to political convention that does not allow the Bible to speak on its own terms. We need to revisit the Hebrew prophets and see what it is they had to say about social arrangements.
Jesus’ words need to be mined and seen for the way they challenge the status quo in all institutional life and for the ways they affirm certain forms of institutional life. Even the Epistles of Paul remind us that social convention can never replace the kingdom as the way God intended people to live together. We have to mine these texts for the hope that they bring, we have to engage the debate for the alternative world that they enable us to see and we have to stand on them because after all is said and done, it is the ground that supports us as Christians. Heaven and earth, Republican and Democrat, liberal and conservative will all pass away, but the word of our God will stand forever.