Nowadays, I’m one of those self-centered people who doesn’t give back, but when I was in college I did some tutoring of kids from poor areas through the Catholic Church. I liked it better than the other volunteer work I did, partly because the other people who were doing it seemed genuinely interested in helping others, not just in padding their resumes. So I believe this Chunky Bobo summary of a new book about churches in America:
The first is “American Grace,” co-written by Harvard’s Robert Putnam (of “Bowling Alone” fame) and Notre Dame’s David Campbell, which examines the role that religion plays in binding up the nation’s social fabric. Over all, they argue, our society reaps enormous benefits from religious engagement, while suffering from few of the potential downsides. Widespread churchgoing seems to make Americans more altruistic and more engaged with their communities, more likely to volunteer and more inclined to give to secular and religious charities. Yet at the same time, thanks to Americans’ ever-increasing tolerance, we’ve been spared the kind of sectarian conflict that often accompanies religious zeal.
Despite all this altruistic community work American churches do, the United States has among the highest rates of crime and child poverty and among the worst access to health care of any western countries. Don’t get me wrong, I immensely admire the work religious people doin soup kitchens, hospitals, and with the incarcerated (I chose these measures of societal well-being because from my experience with the Catholic Church, feeding people, working with children, tending to the sick, and prison literacy work were things I saw a lot of), and I’m sure this work does something to ameliorate some of these problems we have as a society.
Of course, the reason that the United States has so much child poverty and such crappy access to health care is that our government, almost alone among western countries, makes little effort to deal with these problems (I suspect the same is true with crime, that if we had better safety nets and better general conditions for the poor, that we would have less crime).
My question is this: to what extent can the dysfunction of American government — in terms of dealing specifically with poverty and health care — be related to the power of churches in American life? I’m not saying that all churches functions as proxies for the Republican party — although I think that many do — but it’s a simple fact that church-goers are much more likely to vote conservative than non-church-goers. And I suspect that government can carry out the anti-poverty mission of Christianity (to the extent that it still has one in this country) much more effectively than churches can.
I don’t mean this as a put-down of all Christian religion, obviously. I think at this point in the post I’ve done enough pre-empting about this, so I’ll stop.