19 June 2005

Saving America? Faith-Based Services and the Future of Civil Society / By Robert Wuthnow

reviewed by Scott Korb

Robert Wuthnow, a sociologist at Princeton’s Center for Religious Studies, believes very strongly that, when it comes to faith-based services in this country, journalists and policy makers just don’t get it. His new book, Saving America? Faith-Based Services and the Future of Civil Society sounds like one long, exasperated — but pleasantly non-partisan — sigh.

It’s hard to imagine such a thing in this political climate — with Al Gore’s famous exhalations and eye-rolling during the 2000 debates matched only by President Bush’s grimaces and groans last fall. Suffice it to say, one’s exasperation looks and sounds a lot better when it is supported with evidence gathered over twenty years, through surveys and meetings with welfare recipients, service providers, pastors, and congregants of all stripes.

As a study of the distribution and redistribution of social services capital, the book’s contours are predictable. Congregations, faith-based services, nonsectarian organizations, and government agencies make up the spectrum of service providers in the hunt for public money, with most of the attention paid in this book to the dollars that flow in and out of religiously-affiliated institutions. The economics and services of nonsectarian and government agencies are provided mainly for comparison, there being little controversy as to whether or not these organizations should qualify for state or federal funds — and little sense in Wuthnow’s book that they alone can, or should, be counted on to “save America.”

Yet, if economic capital dictates the shape of the research, supplying it with quantitative data, the “social capital” developed in congregations and expended through faith-based services is where we start to scribble messily within the lines. “Trust,” we soon learn, is Wuthnow’s favorite color, “love” being just too gaudy.

What is trust? According to Wuthnow, congregations operate mainly on a family model of membership and belonging; the shape of relationships take priority over the emotions that motivate them. The values of caring and love are emphasized through preaching during religious services, the facilitation of small prayer and fellowship groups, and by volunteering. Using definitions proposed by political scientist Robert Putnam, Wuthnow describes two kinds of social capital stored up through such activities — bonding and bridging.

Social bonds are formed primarily within relatively homogeneous groups where people learn to depend on others for help. Social bridges, meanwhile, are formed between or among individuals of differing social status. It’s not surprising that Wuthnow is interested in showing how these relationships might reinforce each other. Yet, there is no evidence that for congregations “belonging” alone is enough to bridge distinctions of class, race or ethnicity. In fact, writes Wuthnow “the odds of having such friends [of different status] are actually lower among those who attend [religious services] regularly than among those who do not.” Active involvement in volunteering, however, both within and without the congregation, is one of the most “significant factors in increasing the likelihood that a person will have a friend from a marginalized group.”

For their part, congregations can, and very often do, provide the emotional and spiritual support, “even the occasional pot of soup or ride to the doctor,” that their members seek. Yet, at the level of individual congregations, evidence is scant that they play a major role in alleviating economic inequality in America — inequality being the real focus of Wuthnow’s study and our major concern in the debate over faith-based services. Wuthnow concludes, “The principal weaknesses of congregations are that many Americans do not participate actively in them and there are many needs in the wider community that cannot be dealt with through the friendship networks and small groups that congregations encourage.” Where they always come up short — as monies are widely dispersed, space becomes tight (or expensive), and because the necessary expertise is not necessarily there — is in the kind of “financial support and job training that needy families truly require.”

What congregations really have going for them in terms of service provision is that, as Wuthnow points out, “religion is probably more important to the lives of more lower-income people than the typical study of poverty or welfare programs would lead us to believe.” In other words, needy Americans trust religious institutions because they tend to value religion personally. Providing evidence of this trust and finding that evidence valuable per se is Wuthnow’s innovation.

Rather than taking up the matter of social trust as it has most often been considered, by asking if caregivers and service providers find recipients trustworthy, Wuthnow asks the opposite: Do these recipients believe that congregations, faith-based services, nonsectarian organizations, or government agencies are deserving of their trust? And how do they compare along the spectrum? It turns out that people most in need of assistance are least likely to trust “most people,” even themselves. But Wuthnow goes on to show that trust begins, as we might expect, in families, where membership and not necessarily actions serve as the basis for trust.

Congregations, inasmuch as they operate on the family model of establishing and maintaining long-term relationships, are perceived as the most trustworthy of service providers. Yet the needs are too great and the resources too scarce to depend more than we already do on congregations. And in a nation where moral worth has become a significant part of the policy debates about social welfare — e.g., have recipients done enough to find work? do they have too many children? — government entitlements and some nonsectarian services have come to carry with them the burden of shame. Recipients now tend to feel most comfortable seeking out help where their moral worth is less likely to be called into question, where caregiving appears at once natural and freely given. Wuthnow’s data suggest that this may be precisely how faith-based services are now working. And as a result, they tend to be more trusted than nonsectarian or government service agencies.

Still, the big question of separation of church and state remains. And Wuthnow answers, presenting us with a civil society held together not by Christian notions of unlimited or unconditional love but by a social trust that, even in congregations, “is rarely understood or explained in terms of the actual faith-content or religious beliefs.”

Moreover, although faith-based services are largely staffed by members of congregations, they do not tend to promote faith. Government regulations, bureaucratic structures, concerns about religious tolerance and diversity, and professional norms, have the force to “erode the distinction between [faith-based] organizations and nonsectarian agencies.” And whereas a pastor or caregiver in a church would have no trouble using the language of “love,” and in particular the love of Christ, caregivers at faith-based services hardly ever speak like that, neither with clients nor in interviews with Wuthnow. “Love” connotes too much intimacy, a familiarity that, in the context of a nominally religious institution, would blur the same line of professionalism that guards recipients from conversion tactics and protects faith-based organizations from disqualification in the game of public funding.

After reading Wuthnow, perhaps we can all breathe a sigh of relief. If faith-based services are to play a role in saving America, secularists can, for the moment, be assured that it’s unlikely to be salvation in the biblical sense. At the same time, congregants who believe in their own personal salvation can be assured that their efforts are serving the neediest Americans, that their work is appreciated, and their faith appropriately valued. Whether or not this helps towards their own salvation is a matter Wuthnow — with all his many facts and figures, surveys and questionnaires — is unqualified to answer.

Scott Korb is books editor for The Revealer.