Saving America?: Faith-Based Services and the Future of Civil Society

Saving America?: Faith-Based Services and the Future of Civil Society

by Robert Wuthnow



Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780691119267
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 04/18/2004
Pages: 376
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.25(h) x (d)

About the Author

Robert Wuthnow is Gerhard R. Andlinger '52 Professor of Sociology and Director of the Center for the Study of Religion at Princeton University. His books include American Mythos: Why Our Best Efforts to Be a Better Nation Fall Short (Princeton), Acts of Compassion, and Poor Richard's Principle.

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Saving America?

Faith-Based Services and the Future of Civil Society
By Robert Wuthnow

Princeton University Press

Princeton University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-691-12628-3

Chapter One


The question of faith-based social services emerged as a major policy debate in the waning months of the twentieth century. The debate started in the mid-1990s as part of the Clinton administration's efforts to reform the social welfare system. The resulting 1996 welfare reform legislation included a provision known as Charitable Choice. This provision made it possible for churches and other religiously oriented service organizations to receive government funds more easily. As a result of this provision, service agencies and government officials started paying more attention to the possible contribution that religious organizations could make to the needs of lower-income families and other disadvantaged or at-risk persons. During the 2000 presidential campaign, the discussion intensified. The Bush administration subsequently set in motion a number of initiatives to further highlight and support the role of religious organizations in social welfare provision.

The questions raised by the debate about faith-based social welfare provision focus chiefly on what faith-based organizations are doing, how well they are doing it, and whether their activities should be supported with government funds.Few solid answers have been given. The more researchers have tackled these questions, the more they have come to realize that important conceptual and empirical issues must be addressed before definitive answers will be forthcoming. We need to know more clearly what we mean when we talk about "faith-based" organizations. We need to know what the relevant comparison groups are. And we need to be clear about how we are assessing organizations' effectiveness in carrying out their programs.

The recent discussion about faith-based social services, though, is part of a larger debate about the future of civil society in the United States. That debate focuses on the quality of our life together as citizens. It concerns whether the American public is willing to do its part to help one another and it includes questions about the role of trust and compassion in public life. Above all, it is a debate about inequality: whether civil society only works well for the affluent middle class or whether it also works well for lower-income families. Religion is an important part of this debate. The United States has ten times as many houses of worship as it does post offices. Far more people participate in religious organizations each week than in any other civic association. Nearly all Americans attest to believing in the supernatural and at least five of every six Americans claim to have a religious preference. Religion is increasingly being looked to by public officials to help solve community problems. Possible remedies for poverty, crime, drug abuse, homelessness, and many other social concerns have been linked to faith communities. Yet we have few answers about what religion is actually doing or what it may be capable of doing.

In this volume I present new evidence from more than a half-dozen major research studies that I and others have conducted in recent years. This evidence addresses many of the questions that have remained unanswered about the role of religion in providing social services and in turn contributing to the well-being of civil society. How many local congregations have formal programs to assist needy families in their communities? What kind of programs are these? How much money is spent on them? How well do congregations take care of their own? Do members develop personal relationships that help them in times of trouble? Are they challenged to help others? When people are challenged, do they get involved in volunteer activities? What kind of volunteer activities are these? Who is served and what social ties are forged by volunteers? How many specialized faith-based service agencies are there? How are they organized? What role does faith play in them? Which ones are most effective? Do lower-income families have connections with religious organizations? Who seeks help from faith-based organizations? How do they feel about the help they receive? Are religious organizations helping to promote trust? Are they helping to spread messages about love and compassion?

The answers that emerge demonstrate that American religion is playing a positive role in addressing the needs of lower-income families and that it is, more broadly, contributing to the strength of civil society. Yet it would be an exaggeration to conclude that religion can save America from the problems it presently faces in providing social services to those who need them most. This is not because those responsibilities must also be shouldered by government and by corporations and by individual taxpayers. Nobody believes that religion alone could take the place of those institutions and efforts. It is rather that religion's role in civil society is very deeply influenced-facilitated but also constrained-by the cultural norms and broader social structures in which it is embedded. In a word, religion is institutionalized. Therein lies its strength. But therein also lie the routinized ways in which it conducts business, the guiding expectations of its clergy and members, and the invisible hand that governs its relations with other community organizations. The research I present here suggests that houses of worship are not organized to provide dramatically more social services than they presently do. Many congregations are so small that they struggle merely to stay in operation at all. Larger congregations seldom devote more than 5 percent of their annual budgets to the support of formal service programs. What congregations do best is provide support for their members and periodic encouragement for them to care for the needy in their communities. Volunteering has been on the rise and it is often more frequent among people of faith than among others; yet we need to be careful about overestimating the impact of this volunteering. Much of it is devoted to staffing the internal programs of congregations rather than connecting them to the wider community. Faith-based service agencies have emerged as the front line of organized religion's involvement in service delivery. Some of these agencies are large, well funded, and quite effective. Many are small and incapable of doing all they would like to do. As we shall see, most do not emphasize faith very much and, with a few exceptions, it is unclear whether emphasizing faith more would be beneficial. Lower-income families do seek help from these agencies and from their congregations. They would have a harder time finding assistance if these organizations did not exist. They especially appreciate their congregations, even though the help they receive there is modest. They do not believe faith-based service agencies are more effective or trustworthy than secular agencies. When religious organizations help people, trust is often one of the most positive results. Trust, however, is much more complex than we generally realize. Spreading messages about love and compassion, too, is one of the important roles of religion. Yet there are cultural understandings of love that bear little resemblance to the ideals of unconditional love found in religious texts, and we are much better as a society at rewarding people for being givers than we are at maintaining the dignity of those who have to depend on the help of others.

Evaluating the contribution of American religion to the well-being of our society is thus a matter of bringing hard facts to bear on a number of difficult questions. It is not enough to say that religion should do more and certainly not enough to say that religion could do more if only government larders were opened and fewer restrictions were placed on it. Asking what religious organizations actually do to assist needy families forces us to view religion in a new way. We have to move beyond the commonly reported statistics about how many people attend religious services or how many believe in God. We also have to look further than if we simply wanted to know if a particular prison program works well or if fewer people are on welfare this year than last. It is one thing to tell heart-warming anecdotes about the good programs a particular church or ministry is operating, quite another to gauge systematically what is happening in the larger community or in the nation as a whole. Even information of that kind, though, needs to be considered differently if we are to understand how civil society is being affected by churches and by faith-based service programs. Civil society is about social relationships. Its strength lies in the quality of those relationships: whether they are enduring and supportive, whether they bring diverse groups together, whether they provide assistance when assistance is needed, and whether they make it possible for people to mobilize to achieve their values. These are the larger questions that must be considered. They are far more difficult and, indeed, longer lasting than policy debates about whether particular faith-based initiatives should or should not be expanded. They are questions about the organization of American religion, about how congregations function, and about the activities of specialized agencies and the services they provide.

Answering these questions requires more than summarizing the results of a single research study, as has been customary in scholarly publishing. No single study can address all of these questions. We are fortunate to have several good studies that address some of the relevant questions. These include large national studies that offer generalizations about houses of worship and about the American public. Yet, when these studies are compared, they sometimes yield widely discrepant results. As a first step, therefore, we must pay closer attention to the methods employed in these studies, looking carefully at what was done and whether the results are credible. In addition, we need to make better use of relevant information in surveys and other data sets that have not yet been analyzed. Those sources of information need to be brought to bear on the debate about faith-based service provision.

Bringing Evidence to Bear

This volume presents new and newly analyzed information from a number of recent studies and integrates this information with results that have been published by other researchers. I have conducted three national surveys in recent years that provide a wealth of information about religion and social services. I have also directed a community study over the past decade that has gathered information from the full service delivery system in that community: agency directors, volunteers, clergy, community leaders, and recipients. This information provides insights from hundreds of in-depth qualitative interviews in which people talk in their own words about their experiences and perceptions as clients of service agencies or as volunteers or staff. In addition, I present new information drawn from several other major national surveys.

In considering this information, I am interested in answering questions not only about faith-based services, but also about the larger role of religion in American society. Few observers would deny that religion has a vital place in the United States. We know, for instance, that belief in God, churchgoing, church membership, and the proportion of people who claim religion is important in their lives are all quite high in the United States compared to levels in many other societies, especially in Western Europe. Yet there are mixed views of whether the religious commitment of many Americans makes much difference in their lives and to the wider society. The mixed views about the results of personal faith are relevant to discussions about the role of religion in public life as well. It may be that religion contributes importantly to our society by serving the needy in many ways, both formal and informal. It may also be that religion's role, while valuable, is not as significant as may have been assumed.

The criteria by which researchers usually seek to evaluate American religion range from such simple measures as attendance at religious services to more complex indicators of variation in belief, devotional practice, institutional involvement, leadership, and service. The inclusion of service among these criteria is based on the view that religious teachings generally attach some significance to helping the needy and caring for the disadvantaged. To study congregations' and individuals' service activities is thus a way to determine the extent to which these teachings are being put into practice.

Information about congregations' and individuals' service activities is a useful place to begin in trying to understand the role of faith-based social services in civil society. But it is only a start. Too often that information shows that, yes, congregations and individuals do things voluntarily and of a benevolent nature, but reveals little else. Questions remain about which congregations and individuals do more, why they do, and what exactly they do. The question about what they do is especially important. Much of the volunteering and charitable giving that congregations generate may be directed toward maintaining the congregation itself-paying the clergy and keeping the facilities in good repair. If that is the case, and especially if the congregation is composed of comfortable middle-class families who have few needs they cannot meet themselves, then it is difficult to say that congregations are truly benefitting all segments of civil society, including the most disadvantaged. Alternatively, it may be that congregations' principal form of service is to their members, including people with serious needs, and that this service is far more important than the few specialized programs congregations may help to sponsor. If that were the case, it would cast the present discussion of faith-based service programs in a different light. It would, for instance, suggest that government policies should focus on facilitating the work of congregations, but it would raise difficult questions about how best to do this without violating constitutional guarantees about the separation of church and state. Yet another possibility is that specialized faith-based service agencies are really the major vehicles through which religion contributes to civil society, with congregations playing a supportive role to these agencies behind the scenes. If that were so, government policy might be directed toward these programs, and it might raise fewer questions about separation of church and state, especially if these specialized agencies refrain from attempting to make religious converts. These are alternative possibilities that policy makers seldom take into account.


Excerpted from Saving America? by Robert Wuthnow Excerpted by permission.
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Table of Contents

List of Tables ix

Preface xiii

1. Why "Faith-Based"? Why Now? 1

Bringing Evidence to Bear 5

Beyond the Modernization Story 9

The Faith-Based Services Debate 12

Religion as an Embedded Practice 17

A Civil Society? 22

2. Congregation-Based Social Services 25

Formal Sponsorship of Service Programs 28

Members' Awareness of Service Programs 42

Congregations' Financial Contribution 46

Which Congregations Do More? 52

How Service Programs Are Organized 57

Conclusions and Unanswered Questions 61

3. Congregations as Caring Communities 64

Emphasizing the Value of Caring 66

Congregations as Civic Space 70

Caring in Small Groups 74

Congregations as Sources of Social Capital 79

Gregariousness 84

Congregations as Sources of Influential Friends 89

Overcoming Status Distinctions 92

Summing Up 94

4. Religion and Volunteering 99

What Surveys Show 102

Who Volunteers More? 106

Is Faith-Based Volunteering Different? 115

Volunteering and Connectedness 119

Motivations for Volunteering 121

Barriers to Volunteering 132

Some Unresolved Questions 135

5. Faith-Based Service Organizations 138

How Many Faith-Based Organizations Are There? 140

How is Faith Involved? 142

How Faith-Based Organizations Function 150

Arguments about Effectiveness 158

The Role of Faith in Nonsectarian Organizations 161

Challenges and Strategies 165

Conclusions 171

6. The Recipients of Social Services 176

Census Bureau Information 177

Evidence from Other Sources 181

Religious Characteristics of the Lower-Income Population 185

Needs and Services in a Small City 191

Conclusions 213

7. Promoting Social Trust 217

Trust among Lower-Income People 219

Desirable Traits of Caregivers 222

Tr ustworthiness of Service Providers 228

A Closer Look at Trust 232

Trust within Families and among Friends 240

Trust in Congregations 243

Trust in Service Agencies 247

When Trust Is Broken 250

The Social Contribution of Trust 254

8. Experiencing Unlimited Love? 256

How Caregivers Talk about Love 261

Do Recipients Experience Love? 269

The Role of Faith 275

Consequences of Receiving Care 279

Limited Love and the Realities of Social Life 284

9. Public Policy and Civil Society 286

Support for Government-Religion Partnerships 288

The Christian Conservative Movement 297

Is Civil Society One-Dimensional? 305

Methodological Note 311

Notes 315

Select Bibliography 333

Index 349

What People are Saying About This

Christian Smith

This well-written, fair-minded, empirically well-grounded book is set to become the authoritative, standard reference for some time to come for discussions and debates around the question of faith-based social services provision and related policy concerns.
Christian Smith, author of "Moral, Believing Animals: Human Personhood and Culture"

John Orr

The great strength of Saving America? is its comprehensive vision. Beautifully written, it offers findings derived from solid research, and that in itself is an achievement in an area where political ideology abounds. But Wuthnow goes further. He offers wisdom.
John Orr, Professor Emeritus of Religion, University of Southern California

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