How, if at all, does religion affect health and social welfare? Under what, if any, conditions does religion help to improve the lives of disadvantaged urban children and families, and how, if at all, can we foster those conditions? Is there any significant body of evidence to suggest that religion reduces crime and delinquency among low-income, inner-city youth?
In 1995, when I began asking these questions in earnest, there was little reliable empirical research with which to address them. Today, however, we have many first-rate statistical and ethnographic studies that supply some preliminary answers. Though far from definitive, the evidence to date suggests that religion can improve individual well-being and ameliorate specific social problems.
But what types of religious influences are most beneficial to the individual and society? At least three separate but related faith factors can be identified-what I will call “organic religion,” “programmatic religion,” and “ecological religion.” “Organic religion” is defined as a belief in God and regular attendance of religious services in a church, synagogue, mosque, or other traditional places of worship. “Programmatic religion” refers to individual participation in social programs run by organizations with a religious affiliation. With or without attending religious services, a child might be enrolled in an after-school program that is staffed mainly by religious leaders and volunteers. Lastly, even if one does not believe in God or attend services or religiously run social programs, one may still be exposed to “ecological religion.” For many urban youths, the only institutions more ubiquitous than liquor outlets are churches, the only unbroken windows they see are stainedglass windows, and many of the social-service programs that routinely supply them or their neighbors with basic necessities and services are operated through community ministries. Even without any formal religion in their lives, such youths may still be exposed to religious influences.
State of the research
The empirical research to date suggests that, especially for low-income urban children, youth, and young adults, these different forms of religious influence help to counter other, negative individual and social influences. Other things being equal, church attendance, participation in faith-based programs, and benefits received or services delivered from the hands of people working through local congregations are each associated with a greater probability that urban youth will escape poverty, crime, and other social ills.
Still, the body of research on organic, programmatic, and ecological religion is far from comprehensive. While the literature on organic religion is now highly developed, that on programmatic religion is much less so. Scholars have usually approached organic and programmatic religion in ways that lend themselves to addressing whether these respective religious factors improve life prospects. In contrast, the literature on ecological religion focuses far more on the extent to which community congregations supply social services to their needy neighborhoods than on whether their presence and activities improve individual life prospects or overall community conditions.
Certain questions remain almost completely unasked and hence unanswered. One might reasonably posit that, other things being equal, an inner-city youth who is exposed to all three kinds of religious influence would be most likely to prosper. But in fact we do not yet know whether such a “three-factor” youth is likely to do better than an otherwise comparable “single-factor” or “two-factor” youth. Moreover, there is as yet no firm empirical basis for knowing whether faith-based social programs outperform secular ones, and if so, why. And the only answers we can now credibly give to healthy skepticism about the social efficacy of religion are based not on experimental evidence but on counterfactual reasoning. Thus, to those who say, “If religion reduces deviance and is so ubiquitous, then why are things still so bad?”, we can only respond, “How much worse would things be were it not for religious influences?”
Still, we do know far more today than we did seven years ago. The studies we have allow us to examine organic, programmmatic, and ecological religion in relation to relevant research literature on urban crime and delinquency. What we know is highly encouraging. These three types of religious influence constitute a social trinity of “spiritual capital” that can help low-income urban children, youth, and families.
Imagine two sets of people who are alike in terms of average age, income, and other socioeconomic and demographic characteristics. One group consists of people who believe in God, attend worship services regularly, and exhibit other religious commitments. The other group consists of nonbelievers who attend worship services rarely, if at all, and exhibit few if any marks of religious commitment.
Other things being equal, the former group will suffer less, on average, from hypertension, depression, and drug and alcohol abuse, will have lower rates of suicide, nonmarital childbearing, educational failure, and juvenile delinquency, and will boast more members who live into their seventies and eighties. The University of Pennsylvania’s Byron Johnson recently conducted a systematic review of over 700 relevant organic religion studies. In the vast majority of these studies, organic religion was found to vary inversely with negative social and health outcomes, and was associated with emotions and behavioral traits that vary directly with positive social and health outcomes.
For example, based on his systematic review of 46 organic religion and delinquency studies, Johnson reported that “religious commitment and involvement helps protect youth from delinquent behavior and deviant activities…. There is mounting evidence that religious involvement may lower the risks of a broad range of delinquent behaviors, including both minor and serious forms of criminal behavior.”
Likewise, a 1985 study by Harvard economist Richard Freeman reported that churchgoing, independent of other factors, made young black males from high-poverty neighborhoods substantially more likely than otherwise comparable “unchurched” young men to escape poverty, crime, and other social ills. In a 1998 re-analysis and extension of Freeman’s study, Johnson and David B. Larson mined national longitudinal data on urban black youth and confirmed that religious commitments are powerful predictors of whether those youth will escape crime, poverty, and other social problems. There are now over a dozen similar findings in the literature on religiosity and delinquency, and nearly as many in the literature on religiosity and adult criminality. Johnson speculates that religious commitment “may help adolescents learn ‘pro-social behavior’ that emphasizes concern for others’ welfare,” giving them “a greater sense of empathy toward others,” and thereby rendering them “less likely to commit acts that harm others.”
Such speculations square with the views of the hundreds of community and ministry leaders I have gotten to know over the years. Eva Thorne, an MIT-trained political scientist who has spent over a decade ministering to children and youth in one of Boston’s poorest neighborhoods, explains that much of society tends to relate to these “problem children” in terms of “the abuses the children suffered, the violence they have witnessed or done or had inflicted on them, the failures they had in school, the illicit acts they have committed, the illegal drugs they have consumed or sold, the low-income neighborhood in which they have lived.” In contrast, she explains, community ministers and religious leaders relate to them, and encourage them to understand themselves, as “children of God.”
Notwithstanding the great social benefits of organic religion, we cannot and should not use public funds or other public means to proselytize, promote sectarian worship, or advance religious instruction. But government is permitted to contract with certain faith-based organizations, from local houses of worship to national religious charities, that deliver specific social services and programs. Government, for example, cannot aid a local church’s Sunday school bible-studies program (an example of organic religion), but it can fund the same church’s after-school literacy training (an example of programmatic religion), even if the program is staffed by clergy or religious volunteers and is conducted in a place of worship.
Unfortunately, the empirical research on the efficacy of programmatic religion in improving health and social welfare is far less developed at this point than the literature on organic religion. Relatively little data exists for even those programs run by large, well-known religious service organizations. The Salvation Army presently operates some 9,500 centers, takes in $2 billion in yearly revenues, and serves over 30 million people from coast to coast. The organization also runs a number of social-service programs, from homeless shelters and housing programs to drug-rehabilitation and job-training programs. But we know next to nothing about how effective the organization’s famous Adult Rehabilitation Centers (ARCs) are in reducing substance abuse, because the ARCs have yet to be systematically studied or evaluated.
Other religious social-service organizations, such as the national evangelical Christian organization Teen Challenge, are also largely unexamined. Teen Challenge features a two-part process in which program participants spend several months at a reception center getting clean and sober before officially beginning the program. The program is explicitly Christ-centered and predicated on the belief that drug addiction can be cured only by total reliance on God’s grace. Teen Challenge reports tremendous (over 80 percent) success rates in curing young adult drug abusers. A few decent studies of Teen Challenge have been completed, and their results are generally positive, but none of these studies meets the most rigorous evaluation research standards. Selection bias, a lack of data over an extended time period, and other problems plague the extant documentation on the program’s efficacy.
The picture becomes clearer when we turn to another national faith-based organization, the Prison Fellowship Ministries (PFM). Led by former Watergate felon Charles Colson, PFM is a $60 million-a-year evangelical Christian ministry that encompasses not only men and women behind bars but the children and families of prisoners as well. PFM sponsors a variety of prison-based education, drug-treatment, and other programs. Now emerging is a critical mass of systematic research and follow-up studies suggesting that participants in certain PFM programs have significantly lower recidivism rates than otherwise comparable offenders. For example, one study found that 14 percent of the inmates in four New York State prisons who participated in PFM’s bible-studies activities were rearrested one year after release, compared to 42 percent of otherwise comparable inmates in these prisons who did not participate in the program.
Aside from these data, there has yet to be a single strongly experimental or quasi-experimental study of any major faithbased program. Indeed, with respect to faith-based programs for drug addicts, prisoners, at-risk youth, and other populations, most of the “success rates” one hears about are simple summary statistics that lack meaningful data-gathering, analysis, or evaluation. The good news, however, is that nearly all programmatic religion powerhouses-including the Salvation Army, Teen Challenge, and PFM-welcome independent evaluations of their programs. The same is generally true for the extraordinarily large and diverse sector of local and regional faith-based social programs, including those that work through interfaith, ecumenical, public and private, or religious and secular partnerships.
Philadelphia’s Youth Education for Tomorrow (YET) program, which offers intensive after-school reading instruction through a cooperative effort of several dozen churches, Catholic schools, grassroots religious groups, and public schools, is a promising example of programmatic religion’s success. A recently published first-year evaluation of the program by Public/Private Ventures analyzed data on about 1,000 YET children, all of whom entered the program reading two grades or more below grade level. The study showed that children who attended YET 100 days or more vaulted 1.9 years in reading ability, while children who came fewer than 100 times still registered an impressive average gain of 1.1 grade levels.
YET is typical of local programmatic religion programs that, in collaboration with secular and other partners, aim at achieving a specific civic goal. Consider the story of one YET worker as recounted in the aforementioned Public/Private Ventures report:
There was a little boy who was going to get kicked out of school, so they sent him to his YET teacher, and she basically told him, “Jesus loves you, and He sent me here to tell you that He loves you, and there’s a good little boy in there that I’m going to help bring out, and I just want you to know that wherever you go, Jesus loves you and I love you.” And that was outside of the literacy program, but he was in her literacy program, and he made the honor roll.
In a similar vein, Robert Woodson, president of the National Center for Neighborhood Enterprise, suggests that the reason programmatic religion may reduce deviance and delinquency is that faith-based social-service providers, armed with a religious sensibility, often go above and beyond the call of duty and act in ways that inspire an unusual degree of trust among program beneficiaries. In his 1999 book The Triumphs of Joseph, Woodson recalls:
I will never forget the sight of former felons and addicts washing pots and pans and scrubbing down pews in restitution for some violation of a program’s rules. Previously not a threat of a death sentence or life imprisonment meant anything to these individuals who accepted homicides as a fact of life and anticipated a life span of under thirty years. Yet they had willingly accepted the discipline of an unpretentious sixty-year-old outreach minister because he had won their trust.
A religious difference? One approach to testing such ideas about the efficacy of programmatic religion is to examine how faith-based organizations fare at activities-such as mentoring at-risk youth-for which there exists a sizable body of research and a track record of success by secular providers. By doing so, we may better understand the conditions under which faith-based programs produce positive social outcomes and can judge whether, in fact, faith-based programs hold any comparative advantages over strictly secular ones.
To date, the most well-regarded study of mentoring is Public/Private Ventures’ 1995 evaluation of the Big Brothers Big Sisters of America program. Joseph Tierney and Jean Baldwin Grossman of Public/Private Ventures found that youth (most of them low-income minority youth) who were matched with a big brother or sister reaped significant benefits compared with their counterparts who remained on waiting lists. The matched children were 46 percent less likely to begin using drugs and 27 percent less likely to begin using alcohol. They were a third less likely to hit someone. They skipped school half as many days as the wait-listed youth. They also liked school more, got better grades, and formed better relationships with their parents and peers. These effects held for boys and girls across all races.
But the evaluation called attention to at least two problems. First, thousands of eligible children remained on waiting lists due to a shortage of available mentors. Second, the inner-city youths who most needed responsible nonparental adult support and guidance in their lives were the least likely to get it. The simple reason is that Big Brothers Big Sisters of America, like most other effective mentoring programs that reach at-risk urban youth, attracts youths who already have at least one parent, guardian, or other adult in their lives who is responsible enough to sign them up, follow through on interviews and phone calls, fill out forms, and so forth. In a threecity study completed in 1998, Public/Private Ventures found that many low-income minority youth in urban neighborhoods lacked even this level of guidance. As many as a quarter of youth in “moderately poor” neighborhoods were completely “disconnected” from “positive adult supports.”
In response, Public/Private Ventures, in partnership with Big Brothers Big Sisters of America and networks including over 30 local churches in Philadelphia, began in 2000 what has become known as the Amachi mentoring program. “Amachi” is a West African word signifying wonder at the precious gifts God gives us through children. The program attempts to reach some of the most severely at-risk youth, namely, low-income urban children who have one or both parents incarcerated. In only its first year, Amachi mobilized over 500 adult mentors through local churches, which more than doubled the total number of mentors that Big Brothers Big Sisters of America had in the city.
With the aid of Amachi’s leader, Reverend W. Wilson Goode, Sr., researchers are analyzing the program and will eventually undertake a full-scale study. Already, however, it seems clear that Amachi’s mentoring relationships between religious adults and the often desperately needy children of prisoners differ from the usual “active matches.” Baseline data gathered thus far indicate that the religious mentors spend more hours with the children, open both their homes and their pocketbooks more, meet more often to discuss how best to help the children, and otherwise exceed official program expectations.
However, even with most mentors going above and beyond the call of duty, it remains to be seen whether Amachi produces any long-term improvements in the lives of these children, and whether, beyond its proven advantages in mobilizing mentors, it outperforms strictly secular mentoring programs.
Suppose that a low-income, semiliterate urban youth with a mom or dad behind bars is not in any faith-based program nor has any experience with organic religion. Nevertheless, faith could still be a significant factor in his life, one that affects his life prospects-including the probabilities that he will become delinquent, or a criminal, or be criminally victimized by others. The child might not be in any formal faith-based program, but he might receive food, money, medicine, shelter, or attend preschool, day care, or summer camp through local religious congregations. Without believing in God or being the least bit religious, he might end up receiving court-ordered juvenile justice services administered by community-serving ministries. Or, he may simply live in a neighborhood dotted with churches. In sum, even without organic religion or programmatic religion in his life, he may still be exposed to ecological religion.
The ecology of urban life, especially in the poorest neighborhoods-and most especially for low-income African Americans-is a religious one. It is not just that churches, synagogues, mosques, and other religious institutions, large and small, are everywhere one turns in these communities. It is also that, after decades of public and private disinvestments, virtually all other institutions (save the ubiquitous local liquor outlets), have folded or fled these neighborhoods.
This has left to sacred places the provision of an everwider range of civic functions, usually, however, without much in the way of either governmental or private-individual, philanthropic, or corporate-financial support or technical assistance. And it has led many public agencies to rely, de facto, on community-based religious volunteers and organizations to administer social-welfare programs and services, even where those urban government-by-proxy contracting arrangements have involved, sotto voce, pervasively sectarian organizations.
The literature on ecological religion falls into three categories: first, the path-breaking congregation surveys led by the University of Pennsylvania’s Ram A. Cnaan; second, the subset of studies that focus on ecological religion in relation to partnerships with public agencies (particularly criminal-justice agencies); and, third, the studies in economics, psychology, and other disciplines that have analyzed ecological religion as an element of social capital or, as I prefer, spiritual capital.
Congregations and blessing stations
Of the many studies of the social services provided by local religious congregations, the most thorough are the congregation surveys by Cnaan. In the mid 1990s, Cnaan and his Penn research team conducted a multi-city study of more than a hundred randomly selected urban churches and their services within their communities. Congregations were surveyed in Philadelphia, New York, Chicago, Indianapolis, Mobile, Oakland, and San Francisco. The study was based on site visits that averaged three hours in length, along with a carefully crafted 20-page questionnaire covering over 200 specific social-welfare services. Cnaan and his colleagues found that over 93 percent of these churches opened their doors to the larger community. Each church provided an average of 5,300 hours of volunteer support and $140,000 a year in community services, and each church supported an average of four major programs in addition to informal and impromptu services. Poor children who were not church members or otherwise affiliated with the church benefited especially from the church-supported services, and, with only a few exceptions, these ministries did not make entering their buildings, receiving their services, or participating in their social-welfare outreach efforts contingent upon religious conversion or worship.
More recently, Cnaan launched a census of Philadelphia congregations and their involvement in social-service delivery. Thus far, following the same intensive field and survey research protocols that marked the previous study, he has gathered data on 1,376 of an estimated 2,095 congregations. He has found that 88 percent of the congregations provide at least one social service, and most provide two or more services. Again, the primary beneficiaries are neighborhood children and youth, most of whom are otherwise unaffiliated with the ministries that serve them. According to the census, about 40 percent of the city’s churches, synagogues, and mosques already collaborate with secular and governmental organizations, and over 60 percent are open to working with government welfare programs.
What would it cost for government or other nonreligious organizations to replace the social services provided annually by community-serving ministries in Philadelphia alone? Estimating the value of their space at subpar motel rates, and the value of volunteer hours at sub-minimum wage rates, Cnaan arrived at a figure of $250,000,000. This is a very conservative estimate for two reasons: First, the calculation accounts for only five major services provided by each congregation (many provide more); and, second, the survey, and hence the calculation, deals only with congregations’ services, and does not include those services provided by ministries that operate independently of congregations.
How many such noncongregation “storefront” or “blessing station” ministries exist in urban America? These ministries are an important element of the religious ecology of urban neighborhoods that has yet to be systematically studied. All of the exploratory studies to date suggest, however, that the service contributions of blessing-station ministries may rival, or even exceed, those of the congregations.
In the late 1990s, two of my former Princeton undergraduate students, Jeremy White and Mary de Marcellus, spent several months in the poorest, most crime-ridden neighborhoods of Southeast Washington, D.C. They were attempting to find noncongregation-based ministries that provided children and youth with after-school safe havens, recreation centers, homework help, gang-violence prevention, or other services. They found over one hundred such ministries, most of which could not be located in the phone book or by any means other than being on the streets. As White and de Marcellus reported in a summary of their findings published by the Manhattan Institute, these ministries served about 3,500 children and youth on a weekly basis.
Like the congregations in the Cnaan surveys, the majority of the blessing stations in this exploratory study-even the most expressly evangelical ones-served young people who were not coreligionists, and did not make religious profession a condition of receiving services. All were led by a single, highly dedicated person of deep religious faith who sacrificed personally to get the ministry started, and did so with no expectation of outside help.
The religious environment of urban life also includes contractual and other partnerships between government agencies and faith-based organizations. These partnerships play significant roles in community development, welfare-to-work programs, day care, and other areas. In June 2001, the U.S. Conference of Mayors unanimously resolved to stimulate further public partnerships with faith-based organizations, and over a hundred mayors have created local offices of faithbased initiatives. Some, including Baltimore’s Martin O’Malley and Philadelphia’s John Street, are making networks of local community-serving ministries integral to carrying out school reform and other policies.
What is known about such public-private partnerships as they relate to the justice system? In the mid 1990s, I became fascinated with the role of various Boston ministries in the city’s criminal-justice system. Police and probation officers were working with preachers and religious volunteers in a variety of programs to monitor and mentor young men on probation, to identify middle-school children who were being recruited into gangs, to broker truces among competing drug lords and gangs, and to counsel prisoners and help find jobs for recent parolees. In each level of the justice system-prevention, intervention, and enforcement-and within each component of the administration (courts, police, corrections), cadres of Boston’s ministers were found to be involved in official or unofficial partnerships with public agencies. What was especially striking about these partnerships was that the religious organizations were frequently involved in handling the most difficult cases. But as the social scientist’s quip goes, the plural of anecdote is not data. The important question was whether the high level of collaboration taking place in Boston was typical or anomalous.
To determine this, I helped Public/Private Ventures launch in 1996 a national study of the interface between justice agencies and faith-based organizations. The aim was to examine the extent to which these agencies and organizations work together to serve youth already involved in violent or criminal activities, or who are high-risk candidates for such behavior. Field research on the project began in 1998 and, over the next four years, encompassed 16 cities. The subsequent report, Faith and Action: Implementation of the National FaithBased Initiative For High-Risk Youth, concluded that in every city studied, the partnerships between justice-system agencies and faith-based organizations like those first seen in Boston are widespread.
Though hardly without financial constraints and other challenges, most of the faith-based organizations in almost every city were important participants in delivering one or more of the justice system’s mentoring, education, employment, and life-skills services. They also performed street outreach, detention-center outreach, and court advocacy.
Consistent with the aforementioned research of Professor Cnaan, most of these programs welcomed children and youth and provided services without any preconditions regarding the beneficiaries’ present or future religious commitments. Prayer and other religious practices and expressions did figure in some of the services, but participation was not required. Although these “faith-based practices” occurred more frequently when programs took place in churches rather than at a neutral site, not all programs that offered activities in their churches were found to have “a high salience of faith.” Nevertheless, the systematic interviews conducted with district attorneys, other justice officials, and the youth themselves indicate that, if anything, most welcomed the use of religious vernacular and spiritual symbols.
As suggested in Better Together, the recently released final report of the Saguaro Seminar discussion series led by Harvard University professor Robert D. Putnam, much of the nation’s social capital-“community connections of trust and reciprocity”-is spiritual capital produced by community-serving religious leaders, volunteers, and institutions. It is worth quoting the report’s conclusions at some length:
Houses of worship build and sustain more social capital-and social capital of more varied forms-than any other type of institution in America…. Roughly speaking, nearly half of America’s stock of social capital is religious or religiously affiliated, whether measured by association memberships, philanthropy, or volunteering…. Faith gives meaning to community service and good will, forging a spiritual connection between individual impulses and great public issues. That is, religion helps people to internalize an orientation to the public good. Because faith has such power to transform lives, faith-based programs can enjoy success where secular programs have failed.
Many factors have been offered as explanations for the post-1993 decline in crime rates: better policing, longer prison terms, disrupted illegal drug markets, more restrictive guncontrol policies, less restrictive gun-control policies, a sudden surge in the efficacy of prevention programs, the delayed effects of legalized abortion, and the immediate effects of a booming economy. Nobody, however, predicted these drops in crime, and no one has yet truly explained them. But rather than debate which of the usual-suspect factors, and in what proportions, were responsible for how much of the declines, I would suggest that we instead consider the contributions of spiritual capital in its organic, programmatic, and ecological forms.
In a 2001 article in the flagship academic journal Criminology, Byron Johnson reported preliminary evidence that the risk of illicit drug use associated with growing up in a neighborhood where crime and disorder are ever-present “can be mitigated by the adolescent’s individual religiosity and related protective networks of social relations.” But studies of crime and delinquency that factor spiritual capital into the analysis remain few and far between, and many questions are left unanswered. For instance, does living in a poor urban neighborhood that is rich in ecological religion have any independent effect on one’s present well-being or future life prospects, including the prospects of avoiding engaging in or becoming a victim of crime?
We do not know, but we ought to find out. As James Q. Wilson has observed, “The chief federal role in domestic law enforcement should be to encourage and fund research,” where “research” is understood chiefly to mean “evaluations of ideas about how to reduce crime.” I would extend Wilson’s remarks to include federal research on spiritual capital and how it can help to prevent teenage pregnancies, reduce public health problems, combat illiteracy, and achieve many other vital social goals. Such empirical research can serve to guide ongoing debates about whether government ought to cooperate with faith-based organizations or help fund sacred places that serve civic purposes.
Of course, better empirical research cannot resolve the entire range of questions that surround faith-based approaches to social and urban problems, or, for that matter, tell us precisely how to solve those problems. But organic, programmatic, and ecological religion represent three paths to social well-being that deserve far more intellectual and civic interest than we have yet shown them.