Faith Based Organizations: Fighting Poverty or Cultural Wars?

| June 7, 2015

Tug-of-war handsA mid-May, 2015, Catholic-evangelical summit brought together President Obama, academic experts, and faith leaders to consider how to more effectively address persistent poverty. Was this a u-turn from the churches’ focus on pro-life and marriage crusades?

The Catholic-Evangelical Leadership Summit on Overcoming Poverty, at Georgetown University, co-sponsored by Georgetown’s Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life and the National Association of Evangelicals, was an important and thoughtful event which may serve to help bridge the fruitless polarities that continue to hamper our society’s understanding of and response to deep poverty: family life or economic change, individual responsibility or government funding, charity or public services. Faith-based organizations, which directly serve the needy and also often partner with government, and which commonly work in a holistic way and in collaboration with other community groups, are themselves bridges between the different factors and solutions that need to be brought together.

The Summit brought welcome new attention to that community-serving role of faith-based organizations, which has sometimes been overshadowed in the public mind by the strong religious voices pushing for pro-life laws and by loud advocacy to maintain traditional marriage in the face of growing public approval of marriage equality. Without a doubt, some of that pro-life and marriage advocacy has had a culture war quality: a fight to keep “our values” dominant over “your values.”

Casting this as an either-or matter isn’t very illuminating, though. Some of America’s major religious communities will point out that strong marriages do have positive economic consequences; children parented by both a mother and a father, on balance, have a head start; and foundational to helping a person flourish is protecting their existence before birth.

Those views may be increasingly unpopular—and that, in fact, is another reason why many faith-based organizations have decided they have to speak up about some controversial social issues even though their actual main focus is serving community needs. Theirs is a defensive voice, a plea for the freedom to retain their deeply rooted convictions about society and marriage and life, as unpopular as these may be, because they are integral to the organizations’ whole ethos of service, their set of convictions that propels them into service.

After all, these aren’t just humanitarian organizations with a general ethic of doing good; no, they are specifically religious organizations, motivated and shaped by specific religious commitments that drive them to serve in particular ways. Their faith calls them to be ingenious in collecting private funding whether or not there is government funding. Their faith calls them to serve everyone without regard to religion, despite the common human tendency to tribalism. Their faith calls them to pioneer new services when society in general either has not noticed a need or has lacked confidence that solutions are possible.

Faith is their motor, and their varied religious convictions guide their operations and shape their services. Those convictions can put them at odds with legislated or court-ordered requirements based on secular norms and imposed without adequate accommodations for religious differences. It is just such legislation and court rulings that have alarmed many faith-based organizations and compelled them to turn to defensive advocacy and to litigation to protect their freedom to remain true to the deep convictions that motivate and shape their service to the world. Catholic hospitals have to advocate and litigate if they are to remain free to follow their pro-life convictions. Catholic and evangelical adoption agencies have had to advocate and litigate to try to protect their freedom to make their faith-shaped decisions about the best interests of children. Religious organizations of many kinds have turned to advocacy and litigation to seek to preserve the ability to offer employee health benefits that correspond, rather than conflicting, with their religious convictions. Organizations from many faiths have joined together to protect their freedom to consider religious faithfulness when selecting staff.

The dilemma, not yet resolved by these faith-based organizations, is how to keep the public focus on the community good they accomplish daily even as they, when necessary, speak out to protect their freedom to remain true to those other central convictions that have now become unpopular.


This article was originally published by the Institutional Religious Freedom Alliance, and is used with permission.  Information about the IRFA is available at it


Category: Non-Profits

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Email | Website | Stanley Carlson-Thies is the Founder and Senior Director of the Institutional Religious Freedom Alliance (IRFA), a division of the Center for Public Justice. As part of this role, he convenes the Coalition to Preserve Religious Freedom, a multi-faith alliance of social-service, education, and religious freedom organizations that advocates for the religious freedom of faith-based organizations to Congress and the federal government. In addition he is also a Senior Fellow at the Canadian think tank Cardus. He has served on task forces and initiatives under both President Obama and President George W. Bush. Previously, he was Director of Social Policy Studies for CPJ and directed CPJ’s project to track the implementation and impact of the Charitable Choice provision of the 1996 federal welfare reform law. He received the William Bentley Ball Life and Religious Liberty Defense Award from the Center for Law and Religious Freedom and the Christian Legal Society in October 2004. He holds a doctorate in political science from the University of Toronto. He lives in Annapolis, Maryland, with his wife, Christiane.