Paul Wilkes

First of all, the answers to two questions burning at the back of many of our minds concerning the highly charged issue of faith-based initiatives: Yes, absolutely, faith-based organizations do a better job rendering social services than public or government-funded agencies; and no, absolutely, they cannot and never will be able to provide these services alonein fact, they meet but a small percentage of overall need.

American history is rich with the contributions of men, women and institutions of faith. Certainly, the Catholic Church has been a dominant force in providing for social needs, with its network of hospitals, service and relief agencies, homes for the aged, orphaned and marginalized. Next to the federal government, the Catholic Church is the biggest provider of such services.

All this was in place before such a moniker as faith-based initiatives was hung over these doors. Instead of a miasma of government rules and legislation, the Gospel mandate was simple and clear: the few hundred words of Beatitudes spelled out the needs clearly enough. But with an ever-shrinking pool of people, both professed religious and the frankly religious, who willingly worked at sustenance wages, and the escalation of both needs and costs of providing for those needs, we are clearly in another era.

Over the past few years, both those of good will and those who engage in political posturing wondered if they should meet. The intersection of church and state, long considered a no-man’s (or no-woman’s) land has become a busy bazaar of proposals and counterproposals, seeking to meet human need in the most humane and cost-effective way possible.

As Robert Wuthnow of Princeton’s Center for the Study of Religion points out, these religious caring communities (such as individual congregations) and service organizations (the county welfare office) differ in significant ways. Caring communities are embedded in the overall community, blurring the line between insider and outsider. Their interactions tend to take place over a longer period of time and more regularly; and their shared values tend to embrace their clientele, rather than hold them at a professional arm’s length.

Amid a sometimes dizzying mélange of tables and statistics, Wuthnow takes us through the intricacies of the body politic and sketches, as well, the outlines of the human heart. To this reader the latter is the far more interesting portrait offered in these pages. Who among us give of themselves, how much, to what, and to what end?

The churchgoing public will be confirmed to know that they, indeed, are more generous with themselves and their means than those who opt for that cup of cappuccino or round of golf on Sunday morning instead of attending a house of worship. If you are middle class, you are more generous, as you may have suspected, than those above, and, as you may not have suspected, those below you in the economic pecking order.

And if you are a member of an evangelical church and among the theologically conservative, you are more likely (64 percent) to be a volunteer than if you are from a Catholic background (48 percent). But, please, Catholics, don’t feel guilty about this, because your 48 percent (including the progressives and liberals among you) are far more likely to be working outside your walls in social service efforts, while your evangelical brethren are more likely involved in converting the heathen lot of us.

Another fascinating finding addresses the somewhat thorny issues of whether or not people in crisis should be asked or expected to volunteer their time in helping still others in need, or that those who claim they are overcommitted or stressed out by their work life should be approached. Here, the answer is yes on all accounts. People experiencing difficulties are found to be more willing to help others than those sailing a smoother course through life.

The overarching message of Saving America? is that curmudgeons, atheists and strict-separation-of-church-and-state-advocates aside, our civil society is bound together by the glue of love and compassion. Even though many of our actions are driven by self-interest, it is necessary at times to show that we care for people for reasons other than the short-term benefit we may derive from them.

There is a certain schizophrenia about our altruism, as we are motivated by multiple and often conflicting values. One survey in Wuthnow’s study shows that upwards of nine out of ten people say it is fairly important to them to give time to help others, while upwards of nine in ten (could they be the same?) say they equally value taking care of themselves and doing as they please. This is comforting news to those of us who hear the clarion call of Gospel mandates as well as the murmurings of our souls to walk as saints in the world, and yet find we pay more attention to our navels and passing ephemera than to our suffering world, nation and block.

While secular organizations will always provide far more services than those parceled out by the faith-based ones, something else is at stake here. Our faith-based volunteering (or discipleship, which it truly can be)regardless of government sanction or fundingconnects us, as this book shows, with one another in unique ways. And this fragile entity called a civil society is in turn woven through with the thin, often imperceptible threads of these networks.

Paul Wilkes, whose books include Excellent Catholic Parishes (Paulist Press), teaches in the English department at the University of North Carolina in Wilmington, NC.