Faith-Based Social Services: An Essential Part of American Civil Society

Did faith-based social service provision begin when George W. Bush started the office of Faith Based and Community Initiatives in 2002? No. Did it begin with Charitable Choice provision in 1996 Welfare Reform legislation? No. Despite all the media attention to those initiatives, most research shows that these initiatives did little to change the size or focus on faith-based social services. Why? Because most of these faith-based social services existed long before recent federal programs, and because some of what religious organizations do best in social services focuses on deep personal transformations, goals best pursued without government support.

In his book Saving America, the eminent sociologist of religion Robert Wuthnow argues that debates about faith-based social services are often polarized around deeply-held opinions about what the relationship should be between the state and faith-based social services rather than facts. How prevalent are faith-based social services? How does their service delivery or client satisfaction differ from secular social services?

Wuthnow agrees with other prominent scholars of U.S. religion like Mark Chaves and Robert Putnam that, on the whole, most religious congregations do not directly provide social services, but that religious congregations are one of the most prevalent motivators for people to volunteer their time and money for social causes.

The most successful and notable faith-based social services, Wuthnow interestingly points out, are unique not for the type of service they provide but for their approach. Because religious communities generally are [Read more...]


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