Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Churches and the Poor

In his column in Sunday's New York Times, Ross Douthat provocatively asked "Do Churches Fail the Poor?" The column can be accessed online at: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/05/17/opinion/sunday/ross-douthat-do-churches-fail-the-poor.html.

At first sight, Douthat's question seems strange, to say the least. All but the most implacably ideological enemies of religion recognize that Churches and religious institutions (schools, hospitals, and other charitable institutions) devote enormous resources to direct and indirect service to the poor, not to mention an army of religious volunteers engaged in direct service to the poor in their communities all over the country. Douthat does not deny that, of course. In fact, he affirms it in response to the allegation that Churches and religious institutions are disproportionately focused on issues of sexual morality (the so-called "culture wars") rather than on issues connected with poverty. President Obama himself, at last week's panel discussion at Georgetown (about which I wrote yesterday) also gave voice to this problematic notion - an idea that Douthat adamantly calls  "ridiculous." Indeed, he goes so far as to say that "the belief that organized religion is organized around culture war is largely a conceit of the irreligious."

That said, however, he does admit that some religious leaders and organizations may have seemed to emphasize those "culture war" issues rather than poverty in terms of their political priorities. That this has sometimes seemed so can hardly be denied. Responding to Douthat in regard to the Catholic Church in the United States, Michael Sean Winters, at National Catholic Reporter, expressed the view that "most bishops do spend more time working on behalf of the poor than on any other issue with public policy significance. but it is also the case that in the political arena the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has, as an organization, directed its focus more and more to the culture war issues and further and further away from fighting on behalf of the poor and the  working class." (See http://ncronline.org/blogs/distinctly-catholic/douthat-poverty-partisanship).

Personally, I wonder how much the differences in perception reflect different audiences. I think most regular churchgoers would say that they seldom hear overtly political preaching. On the other hand, non-churchgoers may form their impressions about what Churches care about mainly from secular media, which overall generally seem more interested in covering "culture-war" religious activities more than other religious activities. This specific question of differing perceptions - reflecting in turn one's actual level of connection with and involvement in Churches and religious institutions - would seem, in my opinion, to warrant a lot more examination!

But Douthat makes another, much more important point about how Churhes and religious institutions may be failing the poor, a point which I fear can very easily get lost due to the persistent preoccupation with how much Churches do or don't emphasize "culture-war" issues. And that has to do with already well noted decline of religious affiliation and practice among those at the bottom of the socio-economic pyramid. According to Douthat, "actual religious practice has collapsed more quickly among Americans with weaker economic prospects than it has among the college-educated upper class." From a religious perspective, Douthat describes this as "a signal failure: A church that pays out to help the poor, but doesn't pray with them, looks less like a church than what Pope Francis has described, unfavorably, as merely another N.G.O." From a secular perspective, Douthat echoing Putnam, reminds us that "the social benefits of religion are stronger further down the socioeconomic ladder, and these benefits are delivered through community, practice, and belonging."

Essentially, this somewhat parallels the now much noted "marriage gap." Broadly speaking and putting it into Putnam's language, we may be talking about a "social capital gap" - of which religious affiliation and participation is one more symptom, consequence, and contributing cause.

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