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Contexts/Settings: Faith-Based Settings

Abstract and Keywords

Religions have traditionally called upon believers to be generous and assist others in need. Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism are a few examples of religions that stress this call. In the United States, the roots of the current religious system date back to the 17th century, when those who fled Europe to escape religious persecution established the first congregations. However, real faith-based social care developed only after independence and disestablishment. Today, faith-based social care is an essential part of the American welfare system, from the safety net provided by congregations to the sophisticated contracted services provided by the faith-based social services.

Keywords: organized religion, American welfare system, charitable choice

Definitions and Meanings

There is inconsistency and strong disagreement about what constitutes a faith-based organization (FBO). Such organizations can range from a church's social ministry to an organization like the YWCA, whose original Christian affiliation has long been forsaken. A commonly accepted definition of an FBO is offered by Ragan, Montiel, and Wright (2003): “… an organization that has some degree of connection to an organized faith community. These connections may take any number of forms, including an organization's founding; its mission statement; a shared religious ideology among staff, volunteers and, or, leadership; conviction that motivates or guides actions and decisions by staff; and reliance on financial sources of a religious nature. FBOs may or may not have explicit religious content in the programming of the social services they provide. Faith based organizations can, in general, be identified as congregation-based, independent, religiously-affiliated, nonprofit, large, national, faith-affiliated social service providers, and coalitions or intermediaries, as defined below (p. 23).”

The literature on the extent to which a particular social service organization is a religious organization is much more complex. The first serious treatment of the issue was done by Jeavons (1977) who suggested seven dimensions for defining an organization as “religious”: (a) organizational self-identity, (b) selection of organizational stakeholders (staff, volunteers, funders, and clients), (c) sources of funding, (d) goals, products, and services, (e) information processing and decision making (e.g., reliance on prayer for guidance), (f) development and distribution of organizational power, and (g) organizational fields (including program partners). For each dimension, an organization may be categorized along a scale from least to most religious. Smith and Sosin (2001) focused on the ways that service organizations are embedded with faith (that is, how they are connected with denominations or other religious groups) and the relationship of this embedding to the organization of service delivery. They focused on three main dimensions: resource dependency (the proportion of financing and staff from religious sources), authority (the bureaucratic or normative control that religious agencies hold over an organization), and organizational culture (interactions with religious influences in relation to secular influences such as professional associations). Organizations can be placed along a continuum from high to low coupling in each of these areas.

The most advanced typology of faith-based social services was offered by Sider and Unruh (2004) who developed a complex typology of the nature of religion in social and educational services and programs. The typology consists of eight levels of religious characteristics and four levels of programs. Each possible interaction (that is 32 possibilities) is a typology that then has levels of religiosity within it. This model is most helpful for advanced scholars and demonstrates well the complexity of faith issues when applied to social service organizations. The interested reader may also look to Goggin and Orth (2002) for a good review of the topic.

Religious Philosophy of Service

Helping others, especially helping strangers, is imprinted through a deep process of socialization (Keith-Lucas, 1972). Religions have traditionally called upon believers to be generous and assist others in need. Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism are all but a few examples of the major world religions that hold different dogmas, yet teach their followers to help others.

The Jewish tradition distinguishes between values and rules that define relationships with the Deity and those that define individual and communal relationships. The latter tradition has given rise to the concepts of Tzedakah, which means justice or charity, Hessed, which means deeds of love and kindness, including mercy, and the concept of Tikkun Olam, which stands for social justice and integrity. These concepts call upon the believer to feed the hungry, to leave part of the food production for the local poor to gather, to care for orphans and widows, to respect and care for elderly parents, and to treat everyone with dignity. Judaism introduced the principle of tithing, where people are obligated to donate 10% of their wealth to the priests and charity (Plotinsky, 1995).

Christians are called upon to identify with Jesus and in doing so, to care for the poor. Jesus told his disciples that those who feed the hungry and clothe the naked would be rewarded on judgment day. Jesus said in the New Testament, “When you did it to one of these, the poor and dispossessed of his time, the least of my brothers, you did it to me” (Matthew 25:31–46). Another commonly used Christian concept is agape. Agape love is valuing, respecting, being willing to assist, and be committed to the well-being of another person. It originates from the understanding of the nature of God as a merciful and unconditional care provider (Keith-Lucas, 1989). While there are some variations among the many Christian denominations, they all have care and concern for the needy. Some put greater emphasis on the “other world” and minimize the importance of worldly welfare while others are more focused on “their world.” But in either case, for all Christians, care for the poor is both a theological teaching and a practical mandate (Rauschenbusch, 1907).

Islam, like Judaism and Christianity, places a high value on charitable acts and giving. The Qur'an emphasizes the importance of Zakat, which literally means “to thrive or to be wholesome.” In practice, Zakat is a contribution or tax on property that is earmarked for the poor, the needy, those in captivity, debtors, travelers in need, and those who serve Islam (Zayas, 1960). The Qur'an also calls for the practice of sadaqah, which is a voluntary giving to those in need. Giving alms to the needy is one of the five pillars of the Islamic faith; the Qur'an states that divine punishment and reward are determined by the extent to which the faithful fulfill these five principles. Charity and social responsibility in Islam are moral obligations rooted in the belief that the world belongs to God and not to people. As such, giving is a statement about one's belief in God (El Azayem & Hedayat-Diba, 1994).

Buddhism is predicated on sympathy to the poor and the virtue of poverty. Initially, many Buddhists undertook to become—rather than support—beggars, as begging was considered the breeding ground for virtues like modesty and appreciation of simplicity. These virtues enabled a life of contemplation, which was considered the only justification for human existence. Those who did not choose this lifestyle were expected never to pass a beggar without giving alms and never to refuse a request for supporting a philanthropic cause (Conze, 1959). In Buddhism, one who practices charity and compassion is born to a state that moves him or her closer to Nirvana since positive acts produce positive karma. Thus all life is interdependent, and reciprocity is a central tenet of Buddhist philosophy.

In Hinduism, we find that the concept of nonviolence (ahimsa) is central and is clearly demonstrated in the classical Hindu text, the Upanishad (Chekki, 1993). It makes clear references to almsgiving and support of people in need and also teaches that one who is generous to others will benefit while others will suffer. The Hindu religious tradition teaches social harmony and social order, which is best reflected in collective responsibility among families, clans, and castes; examples can be seen in the concept of daana, the act of giving, and daks'ina, gifts displaying purity and respect. Individual responsibility to perform actions that will gain merit in the next life and responsibility for collective welfare have created the motivation for giving to those in need (Chatterjee, 1995).

In sum, the tenets of all religions have helped shape the social values and the institutions that are the foundation of modern social service provisions in both the secular and religious arenas. Offering service to the poor, orphans and widows, sick and disabled, prisoners and captives, travelers, and neighbors in times of calamities is emphasized and fostered in sacred texts. The spirit of faith-based service remains strong among the modern-day followers of these religious traditions.

Religious teaching alone cannot bring about welfare activities. Clearly, social welfare values and philosophies emanated from the many faith traditions. Most religious teachings encouraged social order and cohesion among members of society. Social solidarity was perpetuated by caring for all members of society and showing concern for the poor. However, the complex link between religion and social welfare merits careful examination (Cnaan, Boddie, & Wineburg, 1999; Loewenberg, 1988, Tirrito & Cascio, 2003). Pro-welfare teaching, however, only sets overall social expectations; it does not create actual social welfare programs. Furthermore, not all societies' religions have been active in advocating for and helping the needy and as such various cultural and social mechanisms play in the manner in which religion is instrumental in social welfare. As such, we need to understand how religious teaching was transformed into massive social welfare programs.

History and Evolution

The early manifestation of social care and support of the needy is almost singularly religion-based. Ancient Rome with its public projects and pressure on rich people to feed the masses and pay for entertainment may have been the singular most important exception. In most parts of the world, social care was religion-related. The Jewish prophets complained against those who did not support the poor and disadvantaged, indicating that it was socially expected of them to do so. The later Jewish text, the Talmud, shows that care for the poor, the traveler, and the enslaved was paramount on people's mind and was related to religion. Troeltsch (1992, p. 80) asserted that “in the early centuries, charity was directed inward toward creating a haven of mutual aid within the pagan environment. Later on, in times of great distress and misery which affected the masses of people, the Church lifted the burden from the State onto its shoulders, often creating its own centers of social service and charity.”

The early Christian church was most relevant to the life of the people as it assisted them with all their life needs. When the church started to become institutionalized, especially in the latter part of the first millennium, monasteries were removed from the public and concentrated on sustaining the welfare of their members. At those times, the priests and nuns were busy tending to themselves and barely surviving the dangers of famine and war. In medieval times, churches acted as “patrimony of the poor” under bishops' supervision. From the 15th century onward, religious groups received a tax-exempt status and were able to use land, trees, and water to sustain hospitals, orphanages, soup kitchens, inns, nursing homes, and educational institutions. One such example is the French hospital, The Hotel-Dieu at Beaune, which was endowed by Philip the Good in 1443 and was only closed as an operating hospital in the late 20th century (Hugonett-Berger, 2005).

The roots of current American faith-based social care go back to the 17th century when those who fled Europe to escape religious persecution established the first congregations. Each colony had one established church and possibly also supported the Church of England. Following the European model, tax money was used to erect the building and pay the clergy's salary. Each colony had one established religious tradition. By law if there were 10 families interested in the Church of England, this church was also to be publicly supported (Gough, 1995). The settlers brought with them the laws of England, including the Elizabethan Poor Laws of 1601. These laws stated that the responsibility for the welfare of an individual is first and foremost that of the relatives and if they failed, it is the responsibility of the local authority. This meant that religious congregations were not highly engaged in providing social service. One exception was Virginia. In pre-revolutionary Virginia, many Anglican clergy also served as municipal poor-law officials, and assumed responsibility for the old, the sick, the deserted, and the illegitimate children in their communities. However, these clergy did so as agents of the local authority and not at the behest of their churches (Coll, 1969). It was also in Virginia that the legislature repealed most of the legal privileges granted to the Anglican Church (including the collection of taxes for the church) in 1776 (Levy, 1994).

By 1830 all the states had adopted a similar legislation that disestablished the responsibility of government for maintaining organized religion and allowing freedom of worship. This new practice was the precursor of the First Amendment to the Constitution and the separation of church and state. Interestingly, disestablishment brought with it a renewed interest in religion and the number of congregations grew from fewer than 3,000 in 1780 to approximately 54,000 in 1820, an increase that even outstripped the population growth (Miyakawa, 1969).] Since that time, the United Sates has been—and remains—one of the most religious countries in the world, with religion playing an important role in the daily life of its residents (Finke & Starke, 1992).

The First Amendment, known as the ‘Disestablishment Clause,’ is viewed by many as a landmark in which government, rather than religious organizations, was expected to meet the needs of all citizens. While the First Amendment has been subject to numerous interpretations by various Supreme Courts, all courts have upheld two principles: religious organizations are welcome to provide any social service they wish for as long as they do so with their own resources and these services are free to infuse religious content in the service delivery. However, if religious services are using public funds for social service delivery, these publicly funded services are to be free of religious content and teaching (Dilulio, 2007).

As Leiby (1978) wrote, “religious ideas were the most important intellectual influence on American welfare institutions in the nineteenth century” (p. 2). Revivals, religious camps, and awakenings were all common in this era of post-disestablishment. The Social Gospel Movement, part of this religious excitement, sought to improve the lives of the masses by introducing the Christian values of just and harmonious living in society (Curtis, 1991). Religion in America shifted from being the dictate of the elite into the domain of the members who started to own and manage their religious communities.

The late 19th century was the era in which religion in America started to own leisure time and social care. As Holifield (1994) noted, “In the late nineteenth century, thousands of congregations were open for worship but also were available for Sunday school concerts, church socials, women's meetings, youth groups, girl's guilds, boy's brigades, sewing circles, benevolent societies, day schools, temperance societies, athletic clubs, scout troops, and nameless other activities” (pp. 39–40). Since the early 19th century, religion, no longer publicly supported, began to take a more active role as the social center of the community.

The variety of religions and their fear of one another made possible the proliferation of religious-social services from the mid-19th century onward. While Mainline Protestants used mainstream public services such as public schools and hospitals, orphanages, soup kitchens, and public assistance, other religious groups developed parallel services to “save the souls of their flock.” This is how the rich web of Catholic health, social and human services was developed (Oates, 1995) and the Jewish as well Methodist, Episcopalian, Lutheran, and Salvation Army services were established. The notion of Catholic services for Catholics and Jewish services for Jews and so forth was fundamental and seemed the correct way of life.

The first systematic separation from religious-based social services was the formation of the Charities Organization Societies (COS). At the end of the 19th century, religious-based social services in America began to give way to secular forms of help. The Reverend Samuel H. Gurteen paved the way by establishing the Buffalo Charity Organization Society (COS) in 1877 soon to be followed in all American cities. Although the original British model was religious-based (Buzelle, 1892; Schweinitz, 1943), under Gurteen' s leadership, the COS movement substituted “friendly visitors” for deacons, and a new scientific quest to eradicate poverty and solve all social ills. Through their efforts, social services eventually left their community-religious base for one that was citywide, temporal, and professional (Tice, 1992), and the delivery of social services became less arbitrary and more systematic. The COSs gave rise to the modern social work profession through the efforts of people like Mary Richmond who worked for a few COSs and who attempted to lay a scientific foundation for philanthropy.

Many religious groups became involved in the settlement house movement, either through financial sponsorship or by providing volunteers. Settlement houses helped immigrants and indigent people become self-sufficient and productive citizens. These social services brought middle and upper class members of society to live in poor, usually immigrant, neighborhoods and model “proper” behavior and values to benefit the needy neighbors. At the beginning of the 20th century, about half the settlement houses were sponsored by religious groups and half were secular in orientation (Evans, 1907). However, even the flagship of the secular settlement house, Hull-House in Chicago, was more religious than usually discussed in social work texts. For Jane Addams and many other reformers, Christianity was a religion of social action and faith that demanded service to the poor (Garland, 1994). According to Jane Addams, Christian humanitarianism was taking place “without leaders who write or philosophize without much speaking, but with a bent to express in social service and in terms of action the spirit of Christ. Certain it is that spiritual force is found in the Settlement movement, and it is also true that this force must be evoked and must be called into play before the success of any settlement is assured” (Addams 1910, p. 124 as quoted in Garland, 1994, p. 81).

The Great Depression brought about a situation in which most religious-social services depleted their own sources, their members were in great need, and the new players with big pockets—federal, state, and local governments—became visible. These actors, however, with the exception of the federal government, acted through the many existing local religious social services. Mapes (2004) documented the perceived “right” of religious and ethnic groups to care for their own while being reimbursed by public funds and through guaranteed referrals from public programs. Faith-based organizations such as Catholic Charities, Jewish Family and Children Services, Salvation Army, and Lutheran Social Services developed massive networks of social services, many of which received grants or contracts from various government agencies and cared mostly for their own members. These services became professionalized and when the government entered the welfare field in earnest, through establishing the federal Social Security system, the religious organizations started hiring workers with an MSW degree and positioned themselves to provide professional counseling services. As Mapes (2004) demonstrates, these agencies were the first to offer social services that were not tangible in nature and they praised themselves as advanced and professional rather than bureaucratic and technical, unlike the public services.

Until the late 1950s, many professional social workers were employed by the faith-based social services. However, along with the War on Poverty and the Great Society programs of the 1960s and the Civil Rights Movement, many non-sectarian social services were developed and these services cared for people regardless of their religious background. The many religious social services were asked by the public authorities to care for people not of their faith and to offer services in a non-religious fashion or lose their funding. Thus, since the 1960s, many religious social service organizations started to care for all needy people regardless of ethnicity or religion and hire professional workers based on merit and not on faith. A minority of religious social services decided to forgo public funding, rely on private support, and focus their activities on social services that are heavily religious in nature and selecting clients who were willing to accept their faith message.

Alongside the religious social services that are usually staffed by professional workers and are incorporated as tax-exempt entities, a vast amount of social services are also provided voluntarily and at their own cost by local religious congregations. There are about 400,000 local religious congregations in America and about 90% of them are reported to offer some kind of social program (Cnaan, Boddie, McGrew, & Kang, 2006). These programs are often small in scale but their aggregative contribution is immense. Congregations house the majority of scouts troops, 12-step groups, day-care centers, and food distribution centers. They are the primary providers of immediate care for the poorest members of our society and a large number of them have food programs, clothing closets, and are involved in homeless shelters even if not directly operating one. Many after-school programs are run by and housed in local religious congregations. Most importantly, Cnaan and his colleagues (2006) and Ammerman (2005) found that the commitment of congregations to helping people in need is a rooted American norm. It was the congregations that sustained the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s and many congregations were the first and most effective to respond to the devastation left by the Katrina hurricane.

At the dawn of the 21st century, the religious sector, in many ways, is still the backbone of the American welfare system: from the safety net services provided by congregations to the sophisticated contracted services provided by the faith-based social services for children in need of child welfare and for seniors in nursing homes. The role of religion in social service provisions temporarily diminished with the passage of the Social Security Act of 1935. However, the religious services adapted to the new environment by developing high-quality professionalized counseling services that are the core of modern-day social work. It seemed that the federal government was taking control over the welfare of the American residents. This impression grew stronger in the 1960s with the War on Poverty and the Great Society programs under the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. However, as evidenced by recent studies, the majority of American religious congregations remained active in caring for the needs of people in the community (Cnaan et al., 2006) and numerous large-scale religious organizations are contracting with the government and are offering a myriad of social services.

Positive Attributes of Faith-Based Services

Religious congregations and institutions have numerous attributes that make them well-positioned to provide social services. First, organized religion (from local congregations to national denominations) often fills the role of intermediary group. It protects the citizen from the power of government and corporations. Second, religious institutions are attended and appreciated by more than half the population and as such are the most democratic. There is no other community organization that brings so many people regularly to meet face-to-face. While most congregations are segregated in nature, by race, class, and ethnic origin, they allow minority groups the opportunity to unite and press for their own interests. Third, religious organizations are spread around all neighborhoods and do not tend to concentrate in business centers and in the downtown areas. Therefore, they are accessible to most people and are easily noticeable. Fourth, they possess a large pool of members who can be called upon to assist as volunteers. Fifth, they have space that is often used only on weekends and as such is available for service delivery during weekdays. Sixth, many religious organizations are small and flexible. They are not bound by red-tape and can easily experiment with new methods of care. Finally, the theological teaching of the world religions is “help thy neighbor.” As such, in the United States, religious congregations and organizations see helping the needy as a norm. People in need as well as congregational members accept that helping the needy is the mission of religious organizations (Dilulio, 2007).


Faith-based social services also contain a variety of challenges and provoke social controversies. First, the raison d'etre of religious organizations is the enhancement and proliferation of their faith tradition. Many religious organizations, while providing social services, wish and labor toward clients' conversion and, at times, may put pressure on clients in this direction. Second, some religious organizations view the people in need as “lost souls” who should seek salvation, which may seem patronizing and demeaning to the service clients. Third, religious groups tend to attempt to influence society and, as such, are involved in politics. Clergy and other religious leaders are often active participants in issues that polarize society. Religious leaders were at the forefront of the Civil Rights Movement and the backbone of the Moral Majority movement. There are religious people on the extreme right and on the extreme left. Given that half the American society regularly attends congregations, it is not surprising that these places and the services they offer are used as political platforms for various ideological preferences.


Since the last decade of the 20th century, the trend toward the strict separation of church and state when it came to faith-based congregations receiving government funding has been reversed. First, the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 (P.L. 104–193) passed by a conservative Congress and signed by President Clinton, included section 104 also referred to as “Charitable Choice.” The objectives of Charitable Choice are to: (1) encourage states and counties to increase the participation of nonprofit organizations in the provision of federally funded welfare programs, with specific mention of religion-based organizations; (2) establish eligibility for religion-based organizations as contractors for service on the same basis as other organizations; (3) protect the religious character and employment exemption status of participating religion-based organizations; and (4) safeguard the religious freedom of participants (Cnaan & Boddie, 2002).

Charitable Choice became central in the 2000 presidential election. Both candidates, Al Gore and George W. Bush, committed themselves to expand and sustain this section of the law. Indeed, in his second term in office, George W. Bush, long before most appointments were made, announced the creation of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. This office was designed to increase the public role of religious organizations in the provision of welfare, to blur the lines of the church-state separation, and to encourage all government units to contract out with religious organizations (Wineburg, 2007). This trend toward involving the faith-based community in government programs and legislation has many potential implications, some of which are still hard to foresee. It may erode the volunteer and prophetic voice of many religious groups; it may promote proselytizing it may lower the standard of professional care; and it may cut public spending for social care. These provisions have been, and are still being, challenged in the courts though they have easily withstood all legal challenges so far (see It is not the ideal social arrangement but one that is very popular in the United States and is gaining popularity.

Role of Social Workers

It is imperative for all social workers to follow these developments closely and make sure that client care and well-being are not jeopardized. It is unavoidable that many social services are provided under religious auspices. While most religion-based social services are well-intended and provide quality services, it is the role of social workers to protect clients' rights and make sure that no efforts at proselytizing are taking place and that clients are treated fairly. Furthermore, social work and religion are the two elements that are most concerned with the welfare of the needy and disadvantaged in our society. While the value bases are not always compatible, the quest for social justice and welfare of people is a mutual ground. Social workers should strive to recruit the resources of religious organizations and congregations to the benefit of their clients. If clients can benefit from the resources of a religious organization, the social worker should recruit these resources; if a religious group can be harnessed to a local welfare coalition, the social worker should actively court it. While there can be many disagreements and worries about many religious organizations and their political and religious worldview, in the welfare arena, religious social services are equally concerned and committed to social justice and to serving the needy. A coalition between the religious social services and social work is always stronger than each walking alone.


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