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True Mercy and Charity

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

by Robert Wuthnow  Princeton University Press. 352 pp. $29.95

reviewed by Amy L. Sherman

My heroine, Octavia Hill, chose to live in the slums of east London in the 1800s. Active in what would now be called “Christian community development,” with an emphasis on affordable housing, Hill was a frequent speaker to churches and charitable societies, and she sometimes rebuked her fellow Christians for being “too willing to help the poor, but not willing to know them.” Hill’s sense that compassion involves building genuine relationships with the needy echoes the concept of true mercy offered by the fourth-century Church Father Gregory of Nyssa, who said that mercy is “a voluntary suffering that joins itself to another.”

In his new book, Saving America: Faith-Based Services and the Future of Civil Society , Robert Wuthnow seems to agree with Hill and Gregory. Though the book provides an enormous volume of information regarding the formal social service programs of congregations and faith-based nonprofits, Wuthnow concludes that the most important work that religious believers can do to serve the poor is to build caring communities that enfold people in lasting, supportive relationships. When congregations function as caring communities, Wuthnow argues, “they may contribute to the ‘saving of America’ in ways poorly captured by the service-organization model.”

Saving America addresses the three main questions of today’s debate over faith-based social services–namely: what faith-based organizations (FBOs) are doing, how well they are doing it, and whether their efforts should be supported with government aid. But Wuthnow also goes beyond those questions to examine the ways in which congregations and FBOs may contribute to the strengthening of civil society. This issue, he rightly asserts, is really the most important one. He concludes that faith communities build not only what Robert Putnam called “bonding social capital” but also (though indirectly and less often) what he termed “bridging social capital.” Specifically, by mobilizing volunteers to work in faith-based service organizations, congregations help middle-class Americans to interact with low-income citizens–and this may contribute to overcoming class differences.

He draws this conclusion after reviewing findings from several national and community surveys (including four of Wuthnow’s own from 1995 to today), as well as from numerous studies that have emerged in the last few years as scholarship on the faith community and social service has burgeoned. (The book would make a good textbook for any college course treating religion’s involvement with social or economic development or urban issues.)

Wuthnow estimates that about two-thirds of religious congregations are active in providing social services and that they invest roughly five percent of their annual budgets in such services. This amounts to an estimated 3.7 billion dollars annually. If the in-kind contributions of these congregations are also counted (the volunteers they mobilize, the free space they provide, the time their clergy devote to community work), the portion of their budgets spent on social services goes up to 20 percent or more. Wuthnow also estimates that 18 percent of U.S. nonprofits are faith-based service organizations, and that these groups invest some 8.4 billion dollars annually (after administrative expenses) in programs for those in need.

In absolute terms, then, the faith community’s contribution to America’s social safety net (about twelve billion dollars annually, excluding in-kind contributions) is impressive. In addition, we learn in Saving America that religious volunteers appear to give more hours per week than secular counterparts and are more likely to have volunteered in a poor inner-city neighborhood. “In short,” Wuthnow writes, “the volunteers connected with religiously funded programs appear to have been more actively involved in service endeavors than the volunteers associated with other programs.”

But what about the faith community’s contributions in relative terms? The twelve billion dollar figure represents about 13 percent of the total expenditures of all nonprofit human service organizations–an important, but obviously limited, share. Wuthnow’s data provide a further insight on the relative contribution of religious groups to social services versus that of public welfare agencies and secular nonprofits. His study of 2,077 low-income families in Pennsylvania reveals that 50 percent of those who had sought assistance did so from either congregations or FBOs. Among individuals transitioning from welfare to work, roughly four in ten sought help at some point from churches and community organizations (including FBOs). Clearly, faith communities compose a vital, necessary part of the safety net. Yet the scope and scale of their involvement is insufficient to replace the role of government or secular nonprofits.

Wuthnow’s book looks not only at how much faith communities are doing to serve the poor but also at how well they are doing it. Saving America makes a great contribution to the field’s literature with its three chapters of data from Wuthnow’s path-breaking client study. In this section, Wuthnow reports on how recipients of aid rated the effectiveness and trustworthiness of their helpers. Congregations earned the highest marks, government agencies the lowest. On a four-point scale, clients gave congregations an average grade of 3.59 for effectiveness. And an impressive 84 percent said that they felt they could trust the helpers at congregations “a lot.” FBOs and secular nonprofits received ratings in between those of government and congregations, and they served the same kinds of clients (neither enjoyed more “cream of the crop,” easy-to-serve families); their grades on effectiveness and trustworthiness were also virtually identical. But Wuthnow’s data provide some evidence that clients may nonetheless prefer to receive help from faith-affiliated groups. When asked whether they would prefer to deal with an organization sponsored by a coalition of churches or an organization not sponsored by such a coalition, “nearly five to one opted for the church-sponsored organization.”

While congregations do a lot (and apparently do it well, at least in the eyes of recipients), they also have limits. They tend not to provide more specialized forms of aid (such as job training or substance-abuse counseling) and they are marked by “a kind of equilibrium...that encourages [them] to be involved in service provision, but not too heavily involved.” As Wuthnow explains, congregations have a lot of other work to do–clergy salaries to pay, buildings to maintain, Sunday school and youth programs to operate–in order to remain competitive for members. As a result, numerous faith-based nonprofit organizations have developed to offer more professionalized services and to focus exclusively on outreach.

Wuthnow complains that too many policymakers have failed to distinguish between these social service organizations and congregations in the debate over “faith-based initiatives.” Congregations are different from FBOs, he emphasizes, and this must be taken into account in any discussion of government funding. FBOs are task-oriented and tend to offer shorter-term, transactional programs. Unlike congregations, they do not often use the language of love or faith to describe their work. Moreover, “the sharp line that some observers have tried to draw between faith-based and nonsectarian service organizations is probably exaggerated.” On the one hand, Wuthnow explains, many FBOs downplay their religious identity, and their programs are not particularly shaped by their faith commitments. On the other hand, secular nonprofits are sometimes staffed by people of faith, may receive funding from religious groups, and may include clergy on their governing boards.

Wuthnow’s discussion here is valuable, but sometimes he goes too far. His assertion that most FBOs downplay religion, for example, is based in large part on a survey that John Green and I completed with nearly four hundred FBOs as respondents. But our sample included only FBOs that had received government funding, as opposed to FBOs in general. We did find that only about a quarter of the FBOs were “fully expressive” in terms of how much religion was involved in their programs. But that number may be higher in the general population of FBOs, since some of the groups most “faith-saturated” are wary of financial collaboration with government.

Other observations of congregational outreach can turn some of Wuthnow’s arguments on their head: many congregations offer commodified benevolence consisting of short-term, emergency cash or food assistance while some faith-based nonprofits work intensively for years with the same clients, developing strong friendships. In short, transactional social service models that fail to enfold clients into supportive communities mark both congregations and FBOs, as do the more effective, holistic, relational models. Some FBOs serve clients in a business-like manner to respond only to an immediate need, while others form deep bonds with clients that produce remarkable life transformation. Some congregations achieve the ideal of fostering caring communities, and others do not.

Wuthnow is careful to acknowledge that some FBOs show an ability to forge “encompassing, whole-person, personally transforming relationships with clients” (Teen Challenge and Prison Fellowship are mentioned as examples), but he claims that this kind of FBO is rare. According to the footnote, however, this claim is based on a study of just eight FBOs in California. Surely we need more research on more FBOs before we conclude that “relatively few faith-based organizations actually fit this model.”

Wuthnow also acknowledges that these relationship-cultivating FBOs are often remarkably effective. He worries, though, that these groups “appear thus far to have been concentrated on a particular kind of client, whereas the wider variety of needs being met by service organizations may not be so easily met in this way.” He points out that working with inmates in prison is clearly different from helping the person coming off welfare who needs job training. But Wuthnow may be too pessimistic here. After all, church-based nonprofits around the country are heavily involved in relational ministries–creating “Big Sister” programs for at-risk teens, tutoring children, and befriending low-income adults. Moreover, many FBO transactional services, such as GED or job training classes, are coupled with mentoring that seeks to incorporate the students into the life of the congregations affiliated with the FBO. I have visited Hispanic day-care facilities in Philadelphia and Phoenix that not only provide child-care but also involve mothers in support groups, mentoring relationships, and life-skills classes. The National Jobs Partnership, an FBO with affiliates offering job-training programs in twenty-seven cities, credits its success (the job retention rate after one year among their 1,500 graduates is over 80 percent) to the work of its mentors, who often link students with supportive local congregations. In short, innovative FBOs and congregations can design ways of providing specific social service programs that also build caring communities; the two don’t have to be opposed.

Based on the many studies he has carefully reviewed and explained in Saving America , Wuthnow addresses the question of government funding of congregations and FBOs. He states that nothing in the research accumulated to date suggests that “faith-based initiatives emanating from Washington should be scrapped.” He argues that there is considerable evidence to suggest that FBOs function “just as well as nonsectarian agencies, and, for this reason, should not be discriminated against in receiving government support.” He cautions policymakers to recognize, however, that some of the best work that congregations and FBOs do”informal support, the building of caring communities, and cultivation of intensive, faith-saturated social relationships”cannot be reinforced by government support. He also wonders whether accepting government funding could threaten some FBOs and congregations, and he challenges faith leaders to guard their missions diligently. Finally, he asserts that successful FBOs “are effective for reasons that probably disqualify them from receiving government funding.”

These are mostly fair conclusions; the last one, though, is problematic. “Faith-saturated” programs could theoretically receive public funding indirectly by means of vouchers, without raising constitutional objections. And highly relational, faith-infused organizations could be funded for only those programs that provide specific public services and involve no mandatory religious components, while their other, inherently religious programs (e.g., biblically based life-skills classes) are maintained exclusively with private dollars. Politicians could also pass charity tax credit laws that would have the effect of allowing tax dollars to flow to a wide variety of FBOs, whether robustly faith-filled or essentially secular. If we find that congregations and FBOs that emphasize bonding, friendship, and community offer the poor the greatest help and hope, it seems counterintuitive to argue that these groups should not receive any public aid.

Amy L. Sherman is a Senior Fellow at the Sagamore Institute, where she directs the Faith in Communities initiative.

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