JULY 23, 2001
Finding Religion among Solutions That "Work"
--Martin E. Marty
Religion makes only a brief appearance in a fine, thick, fine-even-in-spite-of-being-thick report called Wanted: Solutions for America. What We Know Works. In a page on "After-School Programs" we read that "Schools are frequent sponsors, as are nonprofit, for-profit, and religious organizations." Otherwise, the report remains silent about the role of religion, even though more than half of the pages deal with "Healthy Families and Children" and "Thriving Neighborhoods."
The sponsor of the report is the Pew Partnership for Civic Change, related to the Pew Charitable Trusts. Pew is not only not unfriendly to religion but is one of the three or four giant foundations, endowments or trusts that is consistently very friendly to it. It is neither a declaration of independence from the Philadelphia-based agency (our antecedent Public Religion Project was launched by the Pew people), nor a biting of the hand that fed us, to make a case study out of this "What We Know Works" study.
Why, given Pew's usual attentiveness to religion, doesn't religion figure more prominently in this report? There are several possible theses.
It is possible that religion does not come up, even where it is highly relevant, because research groups do not ask questions about it. The researchers may not be anti-religious. They are simply looking elsewhere. One might explain the absence of religion by pointing out that religious organizations and other social service agencies are on parallel tracks, and that personnel involved with one set don't often deal with or know much about the other. It might be that religious agencies so often fall short of their stated goals that it is an act of charity not to bring them up. Perhaps it is that they really ARE irrelevant. We could, lastly, blame a secular humanist conspiracy that really works to obscure the positive role of religion and religious agencies in public life.
Let's not follow up on the too-chancy final possibility today. Researchers will find that theses concerning the inefficacy or irrelevance of religious agencies will not stand up to empirical study, and while one can find plenty of disturbing and counterproductive activity by religious groups, the positives generally overwhelm the negatives.
So we are back to a combination of our first two theses. Talk to people on the streets, in the cities, in areas of need, be they urban or rural; read reports by newspeople who get close to the scene; visit that scene with open eyes; do any other kind of research and you will find that African-American, Hispanic-American, and most every other kind of American-American set of religious agencies belongs to the manifest "what we know [often] works" sector.
Drs. David Larson and Jeffrey Levin some years ago found that the religious answers were missing in most social-scientific surveys and reports because they were not asked. Those who go about sighting the evidences of religious influence in America will do well to get closer to the ground, find appropriate spectacles, and develop fresh vocabularies. They will find more "solutions."
Editor's note: The full report Wanted: Solutions for America. What We Know Works is available at the Pew Partnership for Civic Change web site: http://www.pewpartnership.org