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Civil Society

A Faithful Force for Good

Religious organizations are powerful catalysts for social change.

“We share responsibility for creating an economy where parents with jobs receive enough money to care for their families.”—Sister Simone Campbell, Nuns on the Bus, at the Democratic National Convention, September 5, 2012

Prior to the announcement of Paul Ryan as the Republican candidate for US vice president, the Nuns on the Bus tour utilized Catholic social teaching to argue against what they perceived as an unethical federal budget. The image of nuns canvassing the country humanized what could have been an important—but nevertheless abstract—conversation about preserving existing amounts of non-defense discretionary spending. Secular organizations have also incorporated “faith frames” into their work. The Faith and Work Initiative at Princeton University, for instance, helps students to use religious traditions as an ethical resource within corporate environments.

In fact, faith-based organizations often function as catalysts for social change. In international development, nongovernmental organizations such as WorldVision perform community development activities and advocate for holistic social change. In Washington DC, the Muslim Public Affairs Council lobbies for an agenda of religious freedom and equal justice under the law. Within the broader world of social innovation, religious organizations bring three assets: a distinctive theory of change; a capacity to accelerate the pace of change; and a track record of creating change agents.

Faith communities bring a distinctive theory of change.

A faith-based theory of change begins with a couple of facts. Roughly 85 percent of individuals in America self-identify as religious, and individuals who take part in religious activity exhibit high levels of engagement in charitable organizations and neighborhood associations. Given this demographic profile, it’s easy to see that the social sector can increase its productivity by mobilizing the energy and spiritual resources of faith communities. Lawndale Christian Development Corporation (LCDC) exemplifies this theory of change. As a lead agency of the Local Initiatives Support Corporation in the North Lawndale neighborhood of Chicago, LCDC has facilitated catalytic investments in rental housing, federally qualified health centers, and community technology centers. Through collaborative partnerships with federal and municipal government, it has empirically demonstrated that faith-based development, in concert with secular organizations, can revitalize communities.

Faith communities can accelerate the pace of social change.

Community development is a yin component of social change—advocacy is its necessary complement, a yang element that faith communities exercise frequently. Mohandas Gandhi accelerated a postcolonial shift in global politics by employing the Hindu principle of satyagraha, which means truth-force. The Industrial Areas Foundation, a secular organization that has a largely religious membership, hastens the pace of social change at the municipal and state level through community organizing campaigns. Jewish advocacy groups like American Jewish World Service quicken the rate of change on foreign policy through advancing a human rights agenda that emanates from the Jewish imperative to pursue justice.

Faith communities produce change agents.

Faith communities are also a source of civic formation. Our change-agent-in-chief, President Barack Obama, cites his faith as a key influence in forging his commitment to social change. He entered public service as a community organizer with a Catholic organization. The title of his second book, The Audacity of Hope, derives from a sermon that Rev. Jeremiah Wright gave at Trinity United Church of Christ. Moreover, in a fascinating PBS interview, Bill Moyers and Cornel West argued that religious communities induct youth into the vocation of citizenship. Many Americans—across lines of race, region, class, and national origin—delivered their first public speech, presided over their first meeting, or engaged in their first political discussion within the sacred walls of a congregation.

Our unemployment rate hovers at 8.3 percent. More than 15 percent of Americans are below the federal poverty level. To ameliorate the widespread social suffering in our midst, we need to support and bring together the distinctive strengths of organizations from the public, private, and civil sector. The variegated resources of America’s faith community, in particular, can be mobilized for social change.

Among other practical ways to leverage the human, political, and social capital of religious organizations, faith communities provide direct services in neighborhoods across the country. When difficult circumstances arise, families often turn to the food pantries, job fairs, and emergency housing assistance of their respective congregations. The stories of the aforementioned families are a spiritual and strategic resource for advocacy organizations. The New York City Coalition Against Hunger, for instance, trains the clients of religious food pantries to advocate for their preferred vision of food policy before elected officials and other stakeholders.

From collaborating with municipal governments on prisoner reentry to the socially responsible investing of denominations, faith communities perform a broad range of good works. My hope—and prayer—is that this article stimulates further thought about how religious institutions can help your enterprise, community, or institution best achieve its mission.

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