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Among White Evangelicals
A reponse toBeyond the Civil Rights Industry

Ronald J. Sider

To a fascinating degree, the analysis and realignment that Thorne and Rivers offer is complicated by the fact that their proposals run parallel to and even require (or at least would be facilitated by) cooperation with the agenda of white evangelicals. Tragically, that community's widespread racism and neglect of economic justice for the past half-century have largely positioned white evangelicals as the enemy of black progress. To understand this dilemma and search for solutions, we need to remember a bit of twentieth-century American history and reflect on the ongoing debate between Christian theists and philosophical naturalists.

With a few minor exceptions, white evangelicals were at best silent and more often critical when Martin Luther King Jr. and his allies battled for civil rights. There were at least two reasons. The first was simply white racism. A white evangelical community that a century earlier had championed the abolitionist movement largely ignored or firmly opposed King's civil rights crusade1, surely one of white evangelicalism's greatest—and most racist—failures.

There was also a second reason why most white evangelicals were on the wrong side in the civil rights movement. At the turn of the twentieth century, American Protestantism split into two warring camps. The Social Gospel movement (influenced by a liberal theology that was deeply shaped by the philosophical deism and naturalism of the Enlightenment) focused on important structural changes that would promote justice, such as organizing unions and passing minimum-wage legislation. Believing that Social Gospelers emphasized systemic evil and structural change to the neglect of personal sin and inner spiritual transformation, white evangelicals focused largely on preaching and personal conversion. Hence Jerry Falwell's complaint that King should stick to preaching and stay away from politics. When, a couple of decades later, Falwell and other white evangelicals changed their mind about the validity of political engagement, the majority embraced the Republican Party, which, as Thorne and Rivers point out, was not exactly responsive to black concerns.

It is not hard to see why black leadership has for decades worked far more closely with liberal, often secular (and overwhelmingly Democratic) groups than with white evangelicals. But that poses a problem for Thorne and Rivers. Why? Because their agenda runs parallel to that of white evangelicals at striking points. Most obvious is their willingness to work with a Bush administration whose most faithful constituency is widely perceived to be white evangelicals. But Thorne and Rivers also seem to support a whole cluster of conservative things, including traditional sexual norms, a greater emphasis on wholesome two-parent families, and, especially, a much greater role for churches in overcoming poverty.

In fact, on the ground, many of the most effective working models of highly successful black, church-related social ministries place a lot of emphasis on inner spiritual conversion through personal faith.2 Whether one thinks of Rivers's Ten-Point Coalition in Boston, Rev. Floyd Flake in New York, Rev. Benjamin Smith (Rivers's spiritual mentor) in Philadelphia, or the six hundred holistic, church-based social ministries in Dr. John Perkins's national Christian Community Development Association, they all believe that one central component of any lasting solution to the desperate brokenness of America's inner cities is precisely the personal spiritual conversion that transformed Rivers from a gang member into a preacher. In short, the causes of urban decay are both personal and structural, and the solutions must include not only good public policies that deliver quality education, universal health coverage, and a job paying a living wage—but also spiritual transformation of broken persons through personal faith.3

The problem is that the secular allies of the old black leadership do not understand or even reject outright the role of inner spiritual transformation. For decades, if churches wanted to partner with government, they had to water down the religious components of their social programs even though there is reason to think this may be precisely why they are so effective. It is white evangelical John Ashcroft's Charitable Choice legislation and President Bush's new White House Office of Faith-based and Community Initiatives—which, apart from a few noisy exceptions, white evangelicals enthusiastically embrace—that now offer an opportunity for black churches to partner with government in a new way in their social ministries without needing to jettison the component of spiritual transformation. While the ACLU and other secular allies of the old black leadership fight the new faith-based initiatives, white evangelicals and conservative Republicans offer an open hand.4

It is important to understand the deep philosophical disagreement that underlies the debate. Both black Christians and white evangelicals stand squarely within the tradition of historic Christian theism and therefore disagree sharply with the philosophical naturalism that undergirds secular liberal thought. Christian theists—and the ministers and grass-roots folk running many of the most successful faith-based ministries—understand persons as free body-soul unities created in the image of God. In this worldview, no area of a person's life can be adequately considered in isolation from the spiritual, and spiritual well-being has a profound effect on the psychological, physical, social, and economic dimensions of a person's life. Spiritual nurture is not a substitute for material and therapeutic aid, but is a vital complement.

A vibrant personal faith, these people claim, endows life with meaning and purpose, overcoming the grip of nihilism and despair; brings a new sense of dignity and worth, countering the stigmatizing effects of poverty; introduces and strengthens an ethical framework that discourages destructive social behavior; and offers hope for the future, motivating positive steps toward change. The unconditional forgiveness central to the Christian doctrine of grace offers a powerful liberation from enervating feelings of guilt and failure. Christian theologians—whether Saint Augustine, John Calvin, Mother Teresa, James Cone, or John Wesley—all teach that personal faith in Christ brings a supernatural power that transforms the very heart and character of believers, enabling them to live differently, saying no to drugs and yes to family responsibilities. In addition, the community of believers offers a network of caring friends who provide emotional, spiritual, and material support. Further, the Bible's prophetic tradition empowers people in need to join in the work of seeking justice and community restoration. For all these reasons, many Christian agencies seek an integrated, holistic approach that embraces the best of the medical and social sciences but also seeks to nurture personal faith.

This approach contrasts with the naturalistic worldview that for decades has dominated the academic world, elite media, social work profession, and policy circles (including major parts of the Democratic Party). As Carl Sagan argued, nature is all that exists and science is the only avenue to knowledge; people are "soulless creatures," as Glenn Loury has summarized this view. Therefore, technical, professional knowledge and skills are sufficient to solve social problems. The way to eliminate negative social behavior and reduce poverty is to change the environment, modify the economic incentives, or apply a medical or therapeutic treatment regimen. Programs may appeal to general moral principles or civic values, but reference to an alleged spiritual dimension is irrelevant to the task of solving social problems.

According to holistic Christian organizations, however, such an approach does not address the whole person, and thus can only get at part of the problem. Without the freedom to address spiritual issues—indeed, to lead persons to personal faith—staff at faith-base organizations believe the effectiveness of their programs would be crippled.

Obvious problems for secular people surface at this point. Opening a social-service program with a perfunctory prayer is generally considered acceptable, but inviting others to saving faith in Jesus Christ or teaching biblical standards of moral conduct is quite another matter. How should secular folk respond to Thorne's and Rivers's call for expanding the role of pervasively religious social ministries and welcoming President Bush's new White House office? Five quick points.

First, welcoming faith-based organizations to the social service table is the position most consistent with the important civic value of tolerance. Too often in our highly pluralistic society, tolerance is understood to mean that we welcome all voices in the public arena except those making exclusive claims to truth. But that confuses tolerance with relativism. Tolerance is fully compatible with vigorous disagreement. The only genuinely tolerant position is to welcome all voices, including those that claim that some other voices are wrong. Non-religious funders seeking to promote a healthy pluralism can and should fund social service providers grounded in mutually exclusive worldviews, so long as these providers demonstrate that they are successfully producing the desired public goods (e.g., job training, drug rehabilitation, etc.) and respect the freedom of others even as they disagree with them.

Second, non-religious funders (including governments) can best fulfill a policy of religious neutrality by providing equal access to benefits for all successful social programs, without attention to their religious views. Obviously, supporting only holistic programs grounded in theistic assumptions would constitute discrimination against non-theistic worldviews. On the other hand, it is equally discriminatory to fund only secular programs and/or religiously affiliated programs with a largely secular methodology. The only non-discriminatory—that is, the only truly liberal—approach is to adopt a methodologically neutral stance that offers equal opportunity for funding to all providers, religious or not, so long as they produce the desired outcomes—namely, services that serve the common good. (Does that mean that non-religious funders should fund the religious aspects of faith-based organizations? Not at all!)

Third, Charitable Choice legislation provides a model that private, secular funders can also follow for supporting the social service work of faith-based organizations without funding religion. Section 104 of the 1996 welfare law specifies that direct government funds must not be used for "inherently religious" activities defined as "sectarian worship, instruction, or proselytization." Faith-based organizations, however, may raise private money to fund these inherently religious activities and include them in their program, so long as clients' participation is optional. Charitable Choice also specifies that agencies cannot select or reject clients on the basis of religion, that participants must freely choose the religious provider, and that a secular alternative must be available. In this way, Charitable Choice legislation protects both the religious freedom of participants and the religious integrity of faith-based organizations, as well as protecting against government establishment of religion.

Fourth, broadening the range of providers offers an important opportunity to discover what kinds of organizations and programs best meet social needs, and to investigate the truth of claims made by proponents of a faith-based approach.

For all the attention being given to faith-based social services, there is an astonishing lack of research data about their scope and effectiveness. We do know that a significant number of the service providers in needy urban areas are highly religious; that they often report higher success rates than more secular providers; and that many attribute these higher success rates, at least to a significant degree, to their deeply religious program components. Yet there has been little documentation of their outcomes (in part because they have been excluded from government and secular funding sources), and even fewer comparisons between secular and faith-based programs. There are a handful of studies, like that of Teen Challenge, plus a lot of powerful stories of the dramatic transformation of broken persons through personal faith. As John DiIulio likes to say, however, the plural of anecdote is not data. What is the objective—dare I say "scientific?"—response to this situation?

I suggest that major non-religious funders (including government) fund a wide range of eligible providers, both religious and secular; insist on careful record-keeping and participation in scholarly studies as part of the grant; and fund careful research on methods and outcomes. Let the best comparative studies of our top social scientists expand our knowledge of what works best and why. Ten years from now, we will be able to say with considerably more certainty whether, other things being equal, religious providers with a holistic approach are more or less successful than secular, or nominally affiliated, providers. We will also be better able to identify what factors distinguish the most successful programs across the religious spectrum. With this information, secular funders can replace a blanket prohibition against aid to religious organizations with more wisely targeted support that replicates and expands the most effective, efficient models, thereby saving foundation and tax dollars.

Surely secular thinkers, with their long liberal tradition of searching for truth as objectively as possible, ought to lead the demand for more sophisticated, unbiased comparative studies of what works and why in combating our most desperate social problems. To exclude deeply religious, holistic faith-based providers from this process of funding and evaluation would be the height of illiberal prejudice.

Fifth and finally, secular folk should seek to expand the resources and opportunities available to faith-based organizations to further the common goal of caring for human needs. Regardless of whether these organizations work better than non-religious agencies, the documented bottom line is that they do provide many essential services. In many distressed communities, faith-based organizations are among the only entities that provide consistent service. Church-based programs in particular are often more trusted by neighborhood residents than government agencies, and are better able to develop long-term relationships of support and accountability with people in need. Further, faith-based agencies are often able to maximize the efficient use of funds because of their access to resources such as volunteers and in-kind donations. For all these reasons, collaborations with faith-based agencies offer the hope of extending effective aid to the people who need it most.

Everyone should welcome a process that promises to further genuine tolerance, religious freedom, the pursuit of truth, governmental efficiency, and the search for better solutions to some of our nation's most intractable social problems. If that requires a surprising ecclesiastical and political realignment, so be it. •


Ronald J. Sider is professor of theology and culture at Eastern Baptist Theological Seminary and president of Evangelicals for Social Action. He is also publisher of PRISM.

Return to the forum on faith in politics, with Eva Thorne, Eugene Rivers, and responses.


1 Fortunately, there were exceptions: Fred and John Alexander's Freedom Now, which became The Other Side; Jim Wallis's Post-American, which became the Sojourners movement; and the cluster of "young evangelicals" that issued the "Chicago Declaration of Evangelical Social Concern," which led to Evangelicals for Social Action, among others.

2 They also emphasize social action, including politics, because the black church never fell into the same dichotomy between preaching and social ministry that bedeviled the white church in the twentieth century.

3 In my Just Generosity: A New Vision for Overcoming Poverty in America (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker, 1999), I develop in detail both the public-policy and the civil-society (especially faith-based) initiatives needed for a comprehensive, successful reduction of American poverty.

4 Like Thorne and Rivers, I still have a heavy dose of skepticism when other Republican policies (e.g., the huge Bush tax, which is cut slanted overwhelmingly to the rich) undermine the new faith-based initiatives.

Originally published in the April/May 2001 issue of Boston Review



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