CIVIC ENGAGEMENT AND FAITH

UPDATE ON THE FIFTH MEETING OF THE SAGUARO SEMINAR:

Note: this is only a description of some of the issues and ideas considered. For our official set of recommendations, see our BetterTogether report.

The fifth Saguaro Seminar (Saguaro V) met in Washington D.C. in June, 1998 at the Brookings Institution. We focused on the important and strongly-connected relationship between faith-based efforts and civic engagement. Roughly one half of the stock of social capital in America is religious or religiously-affiliated, whether measured by volunteering, philanthropy, or time spent on civic participation. The Saguaro Seminar recognizes the enormous potential and success that religious efforts have had in influencing and determining civic values and participation. Thus, we looked to faith-based efforts for lessons on:
- how some churches have been able to grow and increase religious participation,
- how churches can foster civic engagement beyond the church;
- what's happening in the faith-based world that could inform civic participation more broadly even for non-church goers.

Trends in Religious Participation

In order to understand what has worked in faith-based efforts' civic engagement, it is important to look first at general trends in religious participation and the factors which have affected those trends. Most survey data conclude that religious participation (church attendance) is down from the 1950s, varying according to the specific religion. According to Roof and McKinney, Mainline Protestant denominations, such as Methodist, Presbyterian, Episcopal, Lutheran, American Baptist, and United Church of Christ experienced sharp membership declines from the early 1960s to the early 1980s. Evangelical Protestant denominations, however, such as Baptists, Pentecostal/Holiness, Assemblies of God, and Churches of God. have shown membership gains over the same period, though not significant enough to balance the mainline losses. (Evangelicals believe that people must accept God personally in their lives. They encourage spreading the word of God, "evangelizing" and a literal reading of the Bible). Jewish congregations as well as the Islamic faith seem to show the same dynamic as Protestant membership: the more fundamental congregations appear to be growing at the expense of the more mainline ones.

Five Factors explaining why some Religious Communities are growing

The Saguaro Seminar can learn from each of these characteristics what is appealing about some faith-based efforts, what makes them successful, and how such may be translated/or and expanded into other networks and institutions.

Distinction from the secular world: Finke and Stark suggest that people want a religion which provides a clear contrast to the secular world. Fundamentalist or evangelical faiths offer that contrast and may be part of explaining their recent growth.

Demographics: Hoge and Roozen explain the growth in evangelism by the very fact that such denominations devote a significant amount of resources to recruitment in areas with growing and prosperous populations (i.e. the suburbs, and the Sunbelt). By contrast, mainline Protestant denominations suffered significant population losses in their older, urban churches.

Leadership style and communication use: Evangelicals have been shown to develop strong, entrepreneurial leaders who are able to 'market' their churches effectively with the use of modern mass communication.

Communities within communities: Robert Wuthnow argues that Evangelical churches, while the congregations themselves can grow to be in the thousands, direct their energy inward, involving their members in small group, such as Bible study groups, prayer groups, support groups and youth groups.

Church networks: Evangelical churches have networked to create a very strong matrix of resources for their members. Evangelical communities can offer their members institutions like Bible camps, Christian colleges, organized bookstores and religious resource distributers all which practice and promote the same ideas they practice locally within their own church.

Change in the Air: An Increasing Sense of Spirituality?

Paradoxically, at the same time that there is an overall decrease in mainline religious participation (assessed by church attendance), there seems to be an increased sense of spirituality in the air which can be capitalized. For example:

1) Several academic programs, like a new Harvard Law School course on the Bible, or Harvard Divinity School's new course on Religion and Values in the Public Square show a new openness toward spiritual matters or a values-based debate in the academic world.
2) The percentage of Americans professing trust in religious institutions and stating the importance of God in their lives. Compared to most countries, America continues to be high in religious beliefs and attendance.
3) Youth are more willing to get involved in community service (than just ten years ago) and are willing to march or go on hunger strikes, many religiously motivate.
4) Court action (such as the Wisconsin Supreme Court's) allowing school vouchers for parochial school. This is an action likely to be affirmed by the US Supreme Court and manifests a reevaluation of the church-state relationship at the highest levels of the judiciary.
5) The rise of 12-step programs which combine personal responsibility with a strong belief in a higher power.
6) More and more, government is devolving power to the community level and subcontracting with private providers recognizing that often churches are more efficient, effective and compassionate in meeting such social problems as education, addiction, unwanted pregnancies, homelessness, and community-based development.

Is the increased role of religion in public life an opportunity or a threat?

· Government is increasingly supporting religiously based activities that serve a civic purpose. The most prominent recent examples are the 1996 Charitable Choice section of the welfare reform legislation and the Wisconsin voucher decision, as well as accommodations that have developed in areas ranging from special education to funding text books to homelessness to food pantries to school transportation to health. The Constitution does not specify the "separation of church and state" but only the obligation not to establish, prefer or interfere with the practice of religion.
· What can be done to avoid the rancor, the inflammatory incidents and behaviors that make these religious deliberations "barbed" and "bloody"? The Seminar's own difficult conversations at Saguaro V evince the strong feelings underlying these issues. The evident promise of church-based interventions to meet community problems does not alleviate the skepticism, and even antagonism, many civicly engaged Americans feel to any increased church role in public life.
· The re-examination of the respective roles of church and state can contribute to other leaders of civil society sectors reassessing their own hard and fast line between secular and spiritual activities and help society find a new balance between religion and civic culture. For example: the way journalists and the press cover this issue; how schools and public policy-making institutions and political figures work with churches; reconsideration by non-governmental funders - such as private and community foundations, corporate donors, and United Ways - about how and whether to support religiously based interventions.

Religious Participation and Tolerance

The participants of the Saguaro Seminar also considered the relationship between religious participation and tolerance: Is there an inevitable connection between low levels of tolerance and high levels of religious participation? Does religious participation, or at least the faster-growing faith communities, encourage insularity?; and is religious participation exclusionary by nature? What exactly is the insularity trade-off between inclusive, strong ties within a small community, and exclusionary, weak or non-existent ties to the greater community? Also, given the success of faith-based efforts in combatting homeless, unwanted teen pregnancy, etc., are we faced with a Hobson's choice: between more religion and less tolerance with lesser social problems on the one hand, or less religion and more tolerance with greater social problems. This debate parallels the "Salem with witches" idea coined by Amy Gutmann in a review several years ago of a book by Michael Sandel where she stated that Sandel wanted and believed in Salem (the civicly engaged community) without witches (intolerance of those with unpopular, minority views). We discussed, whether it is more desirable to have Salem with witches and where and how is the compromise to take place?

Importance of Leadership and Communication

Two additional points that came out of this Saguaro Seminar is that the role of leadership in the faith community is critical, as is the way in which the leadership communicates. Leadership models, as well as communication styles, are becoming more and more horizontal and empowering, moving from talking to toward talking with. Leaders set the agenda and tone within the faith-based community and form the foundations of these burgeoning institutions. One of the primary reasons that Megachurches, for example, have thrived is because of strong leaders who use innovative, horizontal and empowering communication. It may be a hallmark of faith-based organizations (as distinct from other sectors of society) that effective leaders have found a way to truly mobilize laity and citizens effectively, in contrast to the clear delineation between professionals and non-professionals that is much more common in our "advanced" society.

Additional Resources and Readings:
Information on Faith-Based Civic Engagement



The Saguaro Seminar: Civic Engagement in America - Harvard Kennedy School of Government
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