Religious Groups and Service: Challenging America’s Faithful to Do More for the Community

George Bush’s pet idea probably owes its life to Bill Clinton’s pet idea. By the spring of 2001, an unusual alliance of conservative Baptists and liberal civil libertarians had torpedoed President Bush’s original faith-based initiative-especially the plan to give government grants to religiously oriented charities. His proposal to change the tax code to make it easier for people to give to charity had been hobbled by his early decision to spend most of his tax-cut chits on repealing the estate tax. But Bush still had one card up his sleeve: he made Clinton’s AmeriCorps program (and community service) a key element of his faith-based initiative.

The link forged by Bush between AmeriCorps and the faith-based initiative is a welcome one for those interested in national service, for it broadens service’s political base and its pool of leadership talent. But just as important, it’s good for religion. On a practical level, there is a very compelling case for religious institutions to embrace national service. Even before Bush came along, about 15 percent of AmeriCorps members—some 6,000 strong-were working in faith-based groups counseling drug addicts, teaching reading to city kids, and handing out peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches to the homeless.

Faith-based groups love full-time service workers. Leaders of religious charities routinely report that they have no shortage of unpaid, “occasional” volunteers; what they’re missing is the people to help recruit, train, and manage these volunteers. John DiIulio, the first head of Bush’s office of faith-based action, noted that the “missing link” is a group of full-time, energetic people who show up every day and supervise the volunteers. A typical AmeriCorps member recruits or manages 12 additional unpaid volunteers.

For years, Habitat for Humanity managers complained that they had to turn away volunteers because they didn’t have enough reliable crew leaders. Along came AmeriCorps. At first, Habitat’s founder, Millard Fuller, turned down AmeriCorps, fearing government entanglement. But he was-he reports now gladly-overruled by his board. Today Habitat is one of the largest AmeriCorps programs, and Fuller estimates that the AmeriCorps members have significantly increased their flock of volunteers. In all, the 600 Habitat AmeriCorps members have directly supervised 241,000 Habitat volunteers, who have built more than 2,000 houses that otherwise would never have been built.

National service helped the faith-based initiative by aiding small religious groups without adding huge bureaucratic burdens. In supporting service, the government is usually funding a person rather than a program; as a result it requires less intrusive monitoring by the religious group. Mostly the government wants to know what the AmeriCorps member is doing, rather than what the group as a whole is doing. It doesn’t matter how much of Habitat’s budget goes to administrative overhead or overseas missions or salaries. What matters is that the AmeriCorps member attached to the program is working hard and accomplishing something.

Consequently, national service solves some of the tricky church-state dilemmas of the faith-based initiative. Instead of worrying about whether consumers of the charity are getting a dose of illegal religion, the government can view its aid as akin to Pell Grants or student loans. It is perfectly constitutional for a 20-year-old to use a Pell Grant to go to Catholic seminary. The aid is going to the student, not the school (even though the school clearly benefits).

Pressing Churches to Do More

The government’s current approach both to service and to religious groups, however, cannot be described as Kennedy-esque. It emphasizes what your country can do for you (and your church), not what you (or your church) can do for your country.

Most of Clinton’s senior staff never quite bought into the sacrifice-for-the-country part of the service initiative and forever pitched AmeriCorps primarily as a way of paying for college. When Clinton introduced his plan for AmeriCorps in New Orleans in April 1993, the banner behind him read, “National Service Means Equal Opportunity.” The pitch often was altruistic bribery: do good work and you’ll get helped in return.

Likewise, George Bush’s faith-based rhetoric is all about helping religion and very little about challenging the faithful. Without implying that these cash-strapped, noble institutions are anything other than angelic, it must nevertheless be said that religious groups do need to be challenged.

Americans are more generous with their time and money than almost any other culture. They give $190 billion to charity and volunteer 20 billion hours a year. Those statistics, however, are deeply misleading, in a way few people want to discuss. The $190 billion figure is less a sign of America’s generosity than its religiosity. Sixty percent of Americans’ contributions go to religious institutions-more than go to youth development, human services, education, health, and foreign crises combined.

The money is essential for the functioning of religion in America. It’s why pluralism flourishes here without the need for (and risks of) massive government funding. But while all this charitable activity is valuable, it should not be confused with help for the poor-or with solving social problems. Most religious charity and volunteerism is directed inward-toward the congregation, the building, the Sunday school, the organ-rather than outward toward the community as a whole. In 1997, a typical congregant of a Protestant church gave an average of $497. But $418 of that went to upkeep of the church and only $79 to “benevolences,” according to a survey by Empty Tomb, Inc., a Christian research firm.

How about volunteering? Here again, much of the service done with the church is done for the church. According to Lester Salamon, director of the Institute for Policy Studies at Johns Hopkins University, only 7-15 percent of volunteering done through churches helps the larger community.

There are religiously based service corps, such as the Jesuit Volunteer Corps, that operate independently of AmeriCorps. Yet all of these religious corps together field only a few thousand volunteers. Few religious faiths make full-time national service an important part of their mission, and few donors to these faiths focus their money on such an effort. If every house of worship in America sponsored one person a year to do full-time service, it would generate roughly 350,000 corps members.

Those religious groups that do emphasize missionary work-like the Mormons-are among the fastest-growing religions in the world. To be sure, that’s partly because their missionary work involves proselytizing, but it’s mostly because they’re helping the needy. In other words, it’s most likely that religions that increase their emphasis on community service will be improving their image and appealing to a new generation of young people-exactly the sort they struggle most to attract into their pews right now.

One of the few things on which all the world’s religions agree is the need to do good works. A national service effort enlisting the nation’s houses of worship would not only revitalize service, it could well revitalize religion.