Sacred Places, Civic Purposes: Some Thoughts on What the Congregations Do

March 1, 1999

In November and December 1997, Brookings—in cooperation with Partners for Sacred Places and with help from the Pew Charitable Trusts—organized two meetings on the role of churches, synagogues, and mosques in fighting poverty and alleviating social distress. The meetings were animated by the conviction that while government had an essential role to play in the tasks of fighting crime, family breakup, drug addiction, and joblessness, it would not succeed on its own. The work of social reconstruction is civic and community work in which the churches have always been deeply implicated.

Participants were urged to address four questions. Which forms of social service and social action are the congregations particularly well placed to perform, and which tasks might they perform better than government? What could government do to help—and also not to hinder—these efforts, and what forms of government participation might be dangerous, either to the religiously based social action or to religious freedom, or both? What responsibilities did the wealthier congregations have to their poorer brother and sister congregations? And how did cuts in government assistance to the poor affect the work of religious charities?