Religion is not a problem to be solved, it is a partnership opportunity
(RNS) – In a time of significant pressure on our democracy, health, and general well-being as a people, faith has provided a hidden infrastructure that has held the United States together. We miss a lot of good when we fail to recognize the role of faith and religious institutions in our communities.
Last month, the Bridgespan Group released a report confirming what many of us already knew: While religiously inspired organizations, congregations, and individuals make up a large percentage of America’s civic and social landscape – especially when ‘it’s about providing assistance to low-income people. and those on the fringes – they are grossly under-represented and overlooked by the philanthropic institutions that fund in these areas. Although faith often makes headlines as a subject of political intrigue and a tool of partisan warfare, in the lives of millions of Americans faith is felt closer to home, helping them to survive and survive. survive week to week, day to day.
If you’re unfamiliar with the baseline inventory, the Bridgespan Group’s findings might strike you as more problematic than just a missed opportunity. The report finds that “faith-based organizations account for 40 percent of welfare spending in a sample of six cities, which vary in size and demographics. Yet while some philanthropists and community foundations have recognized faith-based organizations as platforms of impact, this prospect has not translated into funding for larger institutional philanthropies – particularly those that seek to combat effects of poverty and injustice. “
The report quotes Kashif Shaikh, co-founder and executive director of the Pillars Fund, a granting organization that invests in American Muslim organizations, who rightly points out: “Secularism is the dominant discourse in the United States, but often less so in vulnerable communities. , in my experience. It is a disservice not to even recognize it.
Indeed, while it is certainly within the right of philanthropic institutions to ‘do no religion’, such an approach undermines any meaningful and holistic commitment to community or local philanthropy in much of this country and in many. places around the world. At best, a categorical rejection of religious engagement among institutions working in significantly religious communities is tantamount to an acknowledgment of organizational deficiency. At worst, it adds up to a deliberate act of disruption and disrespect for the values, beliefs and culture of the communities that are “served”.
The problem is not just philanthropy. In politics and in public life, faith is often seen as a sword or shield for its own agenda. Religious communities are too rarely seen on their own terms, classified more as enemies or political allies. This dynamic has contributed to an unfortunate and harmful tenor of the conflict between some governments and religious communities as we seek to mitigate COVID-19. These conflicts arose in part because many elected officials saw religious communities as a problem to be solved rather than a potential partner. Politicians must begin to view religious communities not only as sources of votes, but as sources of wisdom and expertise.
Philanthropy for Active Civic Engagement (PACE) has detected a lack of understanding of how faith and civic health are linked, and in particular, how religious communities help people build relationships and work. together through the difference. In 2019, they launched a funding and learning initiative, Faith In / And Democracy, to support faith-based organizations and efforts that help keep our communities and democracy together.
As an advisor to this program, I have seen that the program’s tireless and often ungrateful fellows have made progress. We sought to determine if there was a distinct field of faith-based organizations and actors supporting our civic life, and our efforts were met with a resounding “yes”. During its pilot year, more than 130 qualified organizations applied to the program, and five were selected to participate in a strong learning community that included a range of advisors as well as philanthropic leaders engaged in this work. Together, we looked at what COVID-19 could mean for the work of our beneficiaries, and we saw first-hand how they discovered creative ways to persist in their mission despite many obstacles. During an election year when some sought to stoke religious resentment and conflict, our beneficiaries worked to strengthen our democracy and build bridges of faith between disparate communities.
Through the crises of this year and my experiences working in the White House under President Obama, I have come to rely on the fact that if there is a crisis or a challenge in the news, there is people of faith at work to deal with it. common good. Faith is always at work.
As we focus on vaccine lockdowns, officials are looking to religious communities for support. In recent weeks, Dr. Francis Collins and Dr. Anthony Fauci have participated in a service with the DC area clergy focused on the vaccine. Dr Fauci called the imperative to vaccinate adults as an “opportunity to love your neighbor”. After a relative dormancy during the Trump years, President Biden has re-established and reinvigorated the White House Office of Faith and Neighborhood Partnerships, which should ensure that the federal government is able to partner effectively with the faith community to maintain the national response to COVID-19. on the right track.
If respected, valued and included, people of faith and religious institutions can be partners on so many issues high on the national agenda. For example, the Biden administration should not simply applaud believers’ support for the anti-poverty provisions of the American Rescue Plan, but rather call on religious leaders to defend the provisions, claiming them as a harbinger of the future. ‘a new national commitment. to take better care of the “smallest of them”.
Likewise, we cannot have a conversation about strengthening our democracy without recognizing the role of faith as a civic character builder and civic conscience shaper. The value of faith communities to our democracy is manifested not just in “Souls to the Polls,” but in the myriad ways that faith draws Americans outside of themselves and to their neighbors. In many communities, congregations serve as civic incubators, forums to strengthen the muscles of service, negotiation, and love.
Philanthropy, governments and other sectors should never instrumentalize faith, nor impose their values on religious communities. The point is not that faith communities should be seen as potential avenues to advance someone else’s agenda – but rather that much of what we struggle to do and to be is already taken. supported by the resources inherent in many religious communities.
Nothing does what faith does like faith does. We will need it in the days to come, just as it has been here – quietly, sometimes – from the start.
(Michael Wear is the founder of Public Square Strategies, LLC, and a advisor to PACE’s Faith In / And Democracy initiative. He served in the White House as part of President Barack Obama’s faith-based initiative. The opinions expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)