MAXWELL:  Researchers take a leap into faith

12/1/1999- Printed in the EDITORIAL section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


In most of the nation’s cities, church-related organizations are doubling their efforts to assist the elderly, the infirm, those addicted to drugs and alcohol, convicts and the working poor who fall through government safety nets.

Some programs even provide modest scholarships for students who could otherwise not afford college. In Philadelphia alone, religious groups provide$1-billion in social services that government ordinarily provides.

Unfortunately, while these organizations have performed good work for decades, social scientists, charitable foundation executives and policymakers have all but ignored such programs or have discounted their effectiveness. Welfare reform, however, has forced many skeptics, including presidential candidates, to reconsider the relationship between the “faith factor” and social change, according to a recent Chronicle of Education article. Several scholars, in fact, are conducting research to learn specifically what faith-based groups are doing to reduce poverty, teenage pregnancy, drug abuse, juvenile delinquency and other social dysfunctions.

More important, according to the Chronicle, sociologists such as Ram A. Cnaan of the University of Pennsylvania are beginning to ask the right questions. Are religious groups, for example, more beneficial than secular organizations doing similar work? Can they _ as the cash assistance to welfare recipients ends _ assume more responsibility? Is faith essential to the results religious groups achieve?

Cnaan and others are surveying thousands of congregations in six cities, and their work goes beyond the tired old question of whether interviewees attend church. But even questions about attendance yield data indicating that the faithful engage in less irresponsible and anti-social behavior. Another encouraging finding, according to the Chronicle, is that adolescents who regularly attend church have lower rates of crime, drug use, drinking and smoking.

John DiIulio, a criminologist at Princeton University, has seen faith groups turn around tough criminals and reduce recidivism. “I’m pretty confident the best studies will show that these organizations make a positive difference and make a positive difference more cheaply,” he said. Indeed, religious groups operate with less because, among other things, they focus their efforts, use volunteers and generally keep overhead and frills to a minimum.

The big question, of course, is why do faith groups succeed where their secular counterparts fail? The answer is complex, and researchers refuse to accept anecdote as data. They know, for example, that some faith-based organizations form coalitions with other congregations and nonprofit groups. Others help reduce inner-city crime by improving relations between police and street gangs.

If new research proves that faith makes a positive difference, the question of why will need to be answered, DeIulio told the Chronicle. He suspects that the faith approach works because of its “one-on-one commitment to personal transformation.” He said religious counselors can _ with straight faces _ tell people in pain that they understand their pain and that God loves them. “I have seen hardened prisoners break down and weep,” DeIulio told the Chronicle. “When they see the real deal, it’s powerful.”

For the first time ever, wealthy organizations, such as the Lily Endowment, Pew and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, are donating money to sponsor conferences and establish centers to study the connection between faith, social change and the transformation of individual lives.

Why did scholars and others take so long to recognize the social efficacy of the faith factor? “There’s an intellectual conceit that became de rigeur in the late 1950s and early 1960s,” DiIulio said, “that at the end of the day, we have moved on from God and religion, that there’s nothing we can learn from them.”

On the other side, however, most religious groups traditionally refused to participate in research because academicians tended to cast them in a bad light. Also, DeIulio told the Chronicle, “There’s a feeling by some people that it is sinful to test the worldly efficiency of these programs.”

Clearly, as welfare reform dumps the last group of hard-core recipients off the rolls, faith-based groups will be called upon by government and society to take up more of the slack. Taxpayers, especially those who object to giving government money to faith-based groups on constitutional grounds, will benefit from academic research that measures the effectiveness of these organizations.