Are Churches Really Failing the Poor?
May 23, 2015
Are Churches Really Failing the Poor?
Last week two prominent Americans — an eminent social scientist and the president of the United States — decided to answer the
question: How have America’s churches failed the poor? Their answer was one deeply congenial to the progressive mind: They’ve
been too obsessed with the culture war.
“Over the last 30 years,” Harvard’s Robert Putnam told The Washington Post, “most organized religion has focused on issues
regarding sexual morality, such as abortion, gay marriage, all of those. Pm not saying if that’s good or bad, but that’s what they’ve
been using all their resources for It’s been entirely focused on issues of homosexuality and contraception and not at all focused on
issues of poverty.”
President Obama’s version, delivered when he shared a stage with Putnam at Georgetown University, was nuanced but similar in
thrust: “Despite great caring and concern,” the president remarked, when churches pick “the defining issue” that’s “really going to
capture the essence of who we are as Christians,” fighting poverty is often seen as merely “nice to have” compared to “an issue
These comments were ridiculous. Not only because believers personally give abundantly to charity, but because institutionally the
churches of America use “all their resources” in ways that completely belie the idea that they’re obsessed with culture war.
As Mark Hemingway of The Weekly Standard pointed out, “Even the most generous estimates of the resources devoted to pro-life
causes and organizations defending traditional marriage are just a few hundred million dollars.” Whereas the budgets of American
religious charities and schools and hospitals and other nonprofits are tabulated in the tens of billions. This reality is reflected in the
atmosphere of most churches and the public statements of their leaders. Anyone who tells you that America’s pastors are obsessed
with homosexuality or abortion only hears them through a media filter. You can attend Masses or megachurches for months
without having those issues intrude; you can bore yourself to tears reading denominational statements and bishops’ documents
(true long before Pope Francis) with a similar result. The belief that organized religion is organized around culture war is largely a
conceit of the irreligious.
Is there a version of the Obama-Putnam critique that makes any sense? Maybe they just meant to criticize religious leaders who
make opposition to abortion more of a political priority than publicly-funded antipoverty efforts. But even this critique essentially
erases black and Latino churches (who reliably support social programs), ignores decades worth of pro-welfare-state talk from
Catholic bishops, and treats the liberal Protestant mainline as dead already.
It also conveniently absolves liberalism of any responsibility for pushing churchgoing Americans toward the small-government
G.O.P. That’s an absolution that the Obama White House, with its pro-choice maximalism and attempts to strong-arm religious
nonprofits, particularly needs.
No, to actually save the critique, you have to transform it completely. There is a case that churches are failing poorer Americans.
But the problem isn’t how they spend money or play politics. It’s a more basic failure to reach out, integrate, and keep them in the
Despite the stereotype of religion as something that people “cling to” in desperate circumstances, religious practice has collapsed
more quickly among Americans with weaker economic prospects than it has among the college-educated upper class. Mere
religious affiliation has weakened for the poor and working class as well. The much-discussed rise of the “nones” — Americans
with no religious affiliation — has been happening in blue -collar America as well as among the hyper-educated.
This is a failure: A church that pays 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. But even from a secular perspective it’s a problem, because the social
benefits of religion are stronger further down the socioeconomic ladder, and these benefits are delivered through community,
practice, and belonging. So churches that spend or lobby effectively for the poor but are stratified come Sunday morning offer less
to the common good than if they won a more diverse array of souls.
This critique actually lays a heavier burden on believers than the one Obama and Putnam offered. Their unjust accusation is easily
answered by citing what religious Americans do already. The just one, though, requires doing something new.
—Ross Douthat, 5/19/15