Not by Bread Alone: The role of the African-American church in inner-city development

Deep social problems continue to plague inner-city America. Fashioning a response to the scourge of drugs, gangs, violent crime, unemployment, AIDS, failed schools, fatherless families, and early unwed pregnancy is among the most serious domestic policy challenges confronting the nation today. Some attribute these problems solely to structural causes. But a key aspect of the problems is the patterns of behavior that have emerged among young men and women in inner-city communities that limit their ability to seize existing opportunity.

While social analysts agree that these behaviors must change if progress is to occur, they disagree fundamentally about how to accomplish such change. For some, the intensification of pathological behaviors among the urban poor is due to the lack of economic opportunities; for others, it is the result of disincentives created by various welfare programs. Though sharply different in their policy implications, these two positions have something important in common. Each assumes that economic factors ultimately drive the behavioral problems, even behaviors involving sexuality, marriage, childbearing, and parenting, which reflect peopleþs basic understanding of what gives meaning to their lives.

A different view of these matters takes off from the biblical injunction, “man must not live by bread alone.” From this perspective, the values, attitudes, and beliefs that govern a person’s behaviors are at least partially autonomous, leaving open the prospect that communal agencies of moral and cultural development might change the way individuals conduct their lives. Since religious institutions are primary sources of legitimate moral teaching in our society, this point of view suggests that significant positive change may be possible if inner-city churches can reach individuals, engage them in the activities of the church, and thereby help transform their lives.

This suggestion raises interesting issues of theory, of evidence, and of ethics for students of social change. Setting aside appeals to divine intervention, the question arises as to what are the characteristics of religious institutions that, in principle, might make them effective instruments of behavior modification and that are not present in secular settings. Also, what evidence supports the claim that the scope of church involvement in the inner city, and its impact on the behavior of churchgoers, is large enough to potentially make a real difference in these communities? Moreover, instrumental calculations aside, one might ask why churches, in particular, should be charged with the awesome responsibility of helping to achieve renewal in our society’s most desolate backwaters.

Each of us, both as scholar and as citizen, has been interested for some time in the idea that religion might promote development in low-income communities. Recently we have been investigating it more systematically. This essay reports on some of our findings and opinions in this critical, but as yet little explored, area of social policy studies, relative to the questions of theory, evidence, and ethics raised above. It is hardly our last word on the subject.

Not a Task for Government

Arguably, encouraging þgood behavior” means making discriminations among people based on assessments that are difficult, legally and politically, for public agencies to make. Discerning the extent to which particular people have risen to, or fallen short of, our expectations in the concrete, ambiguous circumstances of everyday life is a nontrivial task. If promoting “virtue” necessitates setting, communicating, and enforcing standards, then it requires a high level of knowledge about a person’s circumstances and an ability to draw fine distinctions among individual cases based on that knowledge. Both the informational demands of this activity and the requisite authority to act on what information is available will often exceed the capacity of governmental actors, since citizens have procedural protections and privacy rights that cannot and should not be abrogated. Publicly enforced judgments must be made in a manner consistent with these rights.

Voluntary civic associations, as exemplified by religious institutions, are not constrained in the same way or to the same degree. A government agency, when trying to assess whether a welfare recipient has put forward adequate effort toward achieving self-sufficiency, is forced to rely on information like a caseworker’s observations and self-reports of the recipient. Any attempt to limit assistance because the recipient failed to try hard enough would stand up to subsequent judicial review only in the most egregious of cases. Yet families and communal groups providing help to the same person would typically base their continued assistance on a much richer (and, admittedly, often impressionistic) array of information. They would discriminate more finely than a state-sponsored agent ever could between the subtle differences in behavior among individuals that constitute the real content of morality and virtue.

Moreover, in a pluralistic society public agents must be neutral in areas where private citizens differ sharply among themselves as to which set of values is the “correct” one. Publicly enforced judgments necessarily reflect a “thin” conception of virtue, weak enough to accommodate the underlying diversity of values among the citizenry, to be contrasted with the “thick” conceptions characteristic of the moral communities in which we are embedded in private life. Thus, introducing into the public schools in any large city a curriculum of sex education that teaches the preferability of two-parent families might be resisted by educators who would cite the great number of their students from single-parent backgrounds. But what if these are the students most in need of hearing the authoritative expression of such a value judgment? In a parochial school context, such a possibility well might affect the design and implementation of a sex education curriculum.

Consider the fact that some (one hopes, few) young mothers are not competent–for emotional and intellectual reasons–to nurture their children. In such circumstances, the autonomy of the parent-child relation must somehow be breached if the children are to have a decent shot at developing their God-given talents. Although this is difficult ground, there clearly are circumstances in which, to prevent significant injustice to children, we have somehow to get inside the family sphere and get our hands on the lives of these youngsters. Where does the authority–the standing–come from for that kind of intervention to take place? The government’s doing it is deeply problematic. Yet faith-based communities, where participation is voluntary and social relations among members are close, can in some situations exercise that authority.

The Role of Religious Communities

Assume for the moment that religious communities do have a unique role to play in the socioeconomic development of low-income areas. What has been their performance to date? Hope for a substantial church role rests in part on the fact of widespread religious participation in the United States. The existing literature documents that more than half of all Americans regularly attend church or are church members. This level of participation and the relative strength of the various denominations appear not to have changed much for at least 20 years. In addition, the bulk of the literature on church attendance concludes that any fall in participation has been mainly among young people with relatively high social status and thus would not affect urban low-income populations. Indeed, studies of racial differences in church participation uniformly find that blacks participate at a greater rate than whites.

Nevertheless, a sober review of the evidence does not support the view that inner-city churches are now having a substantial impact on the quality of life in low-income communities by altering the socio-economic status of individual church members. (We say this despite the many examples of outstanding urban ministries doing excellent work in particular communities.) For example, while overall church attendance is higher among blacks than whites, it is relatively low in urban areas, especially in the central cities of the North, where much of the low-income black population is concentrated. Also the fastest growth in church membership for blacks (and for whites) over the past two decades has been among Baptists and other, more conservative religious groups whose members have fewer years of schooling than those of other denominations even after differences in the nonreligious characteristics of members are taken into account. Studies of the effects of religiosity on income and schooling invariably find only small positive effects.

We want to stress that the existing literature is unsatisfactory in a number of ways. More direct measures of “religiosity” are needed to determine whether behavioral effects exist. Furthermore, only a few studies can break down their results by race and socioeconomic status; yet there may be important differences across groups. To illustrate, if the social networks of poor black families are less dense than those of others, the effects of any particular social connection might be magnified. Also, if children from more advantaged families acquire beneficial skills or attitudes inside their household, while children from poorer families are relatively more dependent on beneficial external influences, then the potential of religious institutions to play an important role in the inner cities will be underestimated. We therefore urge caution in extending to low-income urban populations the findings of a small effect of religiosity on behavior obtained from aggregate samples.

We are well aware of the knotty problem of inferring causality in this area of research. While it is certainly plausible that religiosity favorably affects work, education, and other behaviors, these behaviors may themselves affect religious commitment and participation. Moreover, measures of religiosity may also be correlated with unobserved nonreligious traits that affect, say, years of schooling. One of us has tried to address these problems in a study of the effect of religious participation on schooling using the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth. That study looked at how church attendance during the senior year of high school affected the total years of schooling ultimately completed, relying on differences in the effects of church attendance before, during, and after the senior year to control for any spurious correlations. We found that church attendance during the senior year of high school adds about 0.2 years to total schooling for white women and for blacks, but had no significant effect for white men. We construe this as modest evidence that church attendance may alter behavior in a constructive way.

Beyond Social Science

Ultimately we do not believe that social scientific evidence can justify what we see as an ethical imperative for institutions of faith, rooted in urban black America, to work toward the redemption and reconstruction of these communities. It is perhaps worth recalling that, as an historic matter, the religiosity now so widespread among black Americans grew out of the experience of slavery. People were driven by brute circumstance to create among themselves a culture with spiritual and moral depth of heroic proportion. They simply had no choice. The brutality of the assault they endured–on their persons, their relations one with another, and their sense of dignity and self-respect–was such that either they would be destroyed as moral beings or they would find a way, through faith, to transcend their condition. That “man must not live by bread alone” was for them more than a theoretical proposition. Grasping the truth of that proposition was their key to survival.

These moral and spiritual values proved profoundly significant in the post-slavery development of black Americans. A spirit of self-help, rooted in a deep-seated sense of self-respect, was widely embraced among blacks of all ideological persuasions well into this century. They did what they did–educating their children, acquiring land, founding communal institutions, and struggling for equal rights–not in reaction to or for the approval of whites, but out of an internal conviction of their own worth and capacities. Even acts of black protest and expressions of grievance against whites were, ultimately, reflections of this inner sense of dignity. The crowning achievements of the civil rights movement–its nonviolent method and its successful effort at public moral suasion–can be seen as the projection into American politics of a set of spiritual values that had been evolving among blacks for more than a century.

Jesse Jackson, Sr., teaches young blacks the exhortation, “I am somebody,” and this is certainly true. But the crucial question then becomes, “Just who are you?” Many of our fellow citizens now look upon the carnage playing itself out on the streets of ghetto America and supply their own dark answers. The youngster’s response should be: “Because I am somebody, I waste no opportunity to better myself; I respect my body by not polluting it with drugs or promiscuous sex; I comport myself responsibly, I am accountable, I am available to serve others as well as myself.” It is the doing of these fine things, not the saying of any fine words, that teaches oneself and others that one is somebody who has to be reckoned with. But who will show the many hundreds of thousands of black youngsters now teetering on the brink of disaster how to be somebody?

One finds a precedent for the huge task we face in the Old Testament book of Nehemiah, which begins as follows:

“Hanani, one of my brethren came, he and certain men of Judah; and I asked them concerning the Jews who had escaped, who were left of the captivity, and concerning Jerusalem. And they said unto me, The remnant that are left of the captivity there in the province are in great affliction and reproach; the wall of Jerusalem also is broken down, and its gates are burned with fire. And it came to pass when I heard these words, that I sat down and wept, and mourned certain days, and fasted and prayed before the God of heaven.”

“The wall is broken down and its gates are burned with fire.” This metaphor of decay and assault is an apt one for our current ills. We are invited to think of a city without walls as one with no integrity, no structure, subject to the vagaries of any passing fad or fancy. We imagine the collapse of civil society; the absence of an internally derived sense of what a people stand for, of what they must and must not do. With the wall broken and its gates burned, anything becomes possible.

In the biblical account Nehemiah heroically led the Jews of Jerusalem to renewal. He went to the Persian king whom he served as cup bearer, secured provision, and returned to Jerusalem, where he rolled up his sleeves and went to work restoring the physical integrity of the environment, but also presiding over a spiritual revival amongst the citizenry.

Now, let us relate this to our overarching theme, lest you think you are about to read a sermon. (We are fully capable of sermonizing on this subject–that our second son’s name is Nehemiah is no accident.) Nehemiah, a Jew, was specifically concerned about his people. His work, the reconstruction of civil society, could only be undertaken, as it were, “from the inside out.” He dealt in the specific and concrete circumstances confronting the Jews. He did not deal only in abstractions. He made himself present among those for whom he had a special affection, toward whom he felt a special loyalty. His is not so bad a model.

In the inner-city ghettos today “the remnant there are in great affliction and reproach.” For the civic wound of black alienation to be fully and finally bound, a great deal of work must be done in these communities. We blacks are connected–by bonds of history, family, conscience, and common perception in the eyes of outsiders–to those who languish in the urban slums. Black politicians, clergy, intellectuals, businessmen, and ordinary folk must therefore seek to create hope in these desolate young lives; we must work to rebuild these communities; we must become our brotherþs keeper.

To say this is, of course, not to absolve the broader American public of its responsibility to formulate decent and prudent social policies aimed at assisting all who languish on the social margins, regardless of race or creed. The ultimate goal is for the sentiment that we must become our brother’s keeper to become more widely shared. Yet when reflecting on the role that churches can play in renewing civil society among the urban poor, we find moral considerations such as those set out here to be, unavoidably, an important part of the dialogue that is now so desperately needed.