The Common Good
September 2004

Who's Saving Whom?

by Brent Coffin | September 2004

Who'

Who’s Saving Whom?

Saving America? Faith-Based Services and the Future of Civil Society, by Robert Wuthnow. Princeton University Press

Reviewed by Brent Coffin

To the extent domestic affairs have not been sidelined by the war on terrorism, public debate over social welfare has focused on the government’s support of faith-based social services. Not only is this focus myopic, it is based on invalid assumptions that are yet to be corrected by empirical data and a broader perspective on the role of religious organizations in American civil society. Out of exasperation, not inspiration, the sociologist of religion Robert Wuthnow devotes his 24th book to this problem. Saving America? Faith-Based Services and the Future of Civil Society is timely and illuminating not only for policy makers and religious and civic leaders struggling through this thicket of issues. It offers valuable insights to those who have ignored these issues.

The phrase "faith-based organizations" has become politically salient rhetoric. It melds the vast pluribus of American religious practices into a simple unum, one with politically useful resonance among conservative evangelicals. The problem is the term obfuscates the differences between congregations and faith-based social service agencies. Wuthnow restores this important line of demarcation. He draws on three national studies, a community study, and fresh analysis of six national surveys by other scholars to shed light on what congregations do, what faith-based service agencies do, and how they are connected within wider networks of organizations and cultural norms. The book is structured accordingly: three chapters on congregations as providers of social services, caring communities, and reservoirs of volunteers; four chapters on faith-based service agencies, their impact on recipients, their ability to generate social trust, and whether they perform the mission of conveying unconditional love; and a final chapter of well-advised cautions on the future of religious organizations and civil society.

TO KNOW HOW religion impacts those in need, congregations are the place to start. Because most are small and lacking resources, just over half are involved in a social service program. Yet because most religiously active citizens attend larger congregations, 75 percent of those adults are involved in some form of service program. Since there are some 350,000 congregations nationwide, boosters of the "faith-based movement" see a vast reservoir of resources here for transforming the lives of those in need.

The pool may be wide, but it is not deep. It is primarily the large and urban-based congregations that directly sponsor social-service programs. The vast majority of congregations do not have capacity; more important, they do not seek it. Social-service provision is not their prime mission. As Wuthnow carefully documents, congregations primarily are caring communities. They provide spaces for worship and thick interaction within small groups. By pursuing this mission, congregations in poor communities are providing spiritual nurture and informal social services to their members. On the other hand, as congregations in privileged communities create caring social bonds, those friendships rarely extend to the poor. Indeed, increasing such bonds decreases the likelihood of engagement with the poor.

The vast majority of religious social services are provided by faith-based agencies, not congregations. Specialized agencies such as Catholic Charities and Lutheran Social Services provide twice the services of all congregations combined and approximately one-fifth of all social assistance to those in need. Thus, faith-based social service agencies complement the mission of congregations, but neither can effectively replicate the other.

Wuthnow’s analysis challenges the clear distinction between "faith-based" and secular agencies. Both operate in very similar ways. Religious faith and values very well may inform both. And recipients express no clear preference for either kind. The standouts are those congregations that provide holistic ministries to select groups of recipients, such as youth at high risk of drug usage or pregnancy. Apart from being few and far between, these ministries pose a striking dilemma for proponents of faith-based solutions to America’s social ills. If it is the holistic spiritual approaches that are most effective, then government funding of successful faith-based providers is necessarily an endorsement of religion, but not all religions alike. While the playing field is being leveled, those most eager to play are African-American Christians and white evangelical Christians aligned with this movement.

However, Wuthnow’s research suggests we should not be primarily focusing on the problem of government-funded religion. The evidence shows that most faith-based social services are delivered without strings attached. While opponents focus on the rhetoric of faith-based salvation, the practice of promoting faith-based social services risks furthering an already ominous trend: homogenizing religious communities and thus diminishing the pluralism of a truly vibrant civil society.

If the rich vitality of American civil society is to be renewed, religious leaders must help their members to be faithful to their religious missions. The armies of compassion need to hear the beat of their own traditions, not the alluring rhetoric that would enlist them as soldiers in service of public policy.

Brent Coffin is director of the Program on Religion and Public Life at Harvard University’s Hauser Center for Nonprofit Organizations in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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