The Corner

Culture

Why Does ‘Organized Religion’ Get a Bad Rap? Because the Elite Lies About It

The constant demonization of faithful Americans is bearing fruit. According to a new poll, more Americans (61 percent) would be comfortable or enthusiastic about a gay president than an Evangelical president (52 percent). While — in the abstract — that’s not all that meaningful or alarming (after all, voters vote for actual people, not religious or sexual categories), it does signal a background level of disapproval for Evangelical Americans, and one has to be living under a rock to know that “organized religion” is a constant target for pop culture. While there are certainly unpleasant Christians and corrupt churches — Christians are humans, after all — much of this negative campaign is built on a foundation of lies. Spend more than five minutes around ”organized religion,” and you’ll quickly learn that churchgoing Americans are among our most generous, most loving, and most selfless citizens. 

But don’t tell that to the cultural elite. Last week, in a Q & A with the Washington Post’s Michelle Boorstein about the role of faith groups in combatting poverty, Harvard’s Robert Putnam made a statement I’ve heard countless times before — that Christians are so obsessed with gays and abortion that they neglect the poor. Here’s Putnam:

The obvious fact is that over the last 30 years, most organized religion has focused on issues regarding sexual morality, such as abortion, gay marriage, all of those. I’m not saying if that’s good or bad, but that’s what they’ve been using all their resources for. This is the most obvious point in the world. It’s been entirely focused on issues of homosexuality and contraception and not at all focused on issues of poverty.

I’m sorry, but this is a shockingly ignorant statement from a normally interesting and compelling public intellectual. Over at the Religious News Service the Family Research Council’s Rob Schwarzwalder and Pat Fagan take Putnam’s assertion to the woodshed. First, they quote the Philanthropy Roundtable:

In 2009, overseas relief and development supported by American churches exceeded $13 billion, according to path-breaking calculations by the Hudson Center for Global Prosperity. (This includes not just evangelical churches but also Catholic and mainline Protestant congregations, and covers both direct missions work and donations to private relief groups.) That compares to $5 billion sent abroad by foundations in the same year, $6 billion from private and voluntary relief organizations apart from church support, and $9 billion donated internationally by corporations. The $13 billion in religious overseas philanthropy also compares impressively to the $29 billion of official development aid handed out by the federal government in 2009.

Evangelicals alone spend billions on poverty relief:

In 2012 alone, the evangelical relief group World Vision spent “roughly $2.8 billion annually to care for the poor,” according to World Vision U.S. President Richard Stearns. “That would rank World Vision about 12th within the G-20 nations in terms of overseas development assistance.”

The gold-standard accountability group for evangelical ministries, the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability, represents groups that provide food, medical care, education, adoption services, orphan care, post-prison assistance, substance abuse help and other critical services at home and abroad. In aggregate, the more than 600 evangelical ministries represented in the ECFA provide more than $9.2 billion in relief assistance.

And that’s just Evangelicals. The Catholic Church in America is extraordinarily generous:

Catholic ministries, too, here and abroad are vibrant: How many Americans, of every faith and every economic status, have received world-class health care in Catholic hospitals? In total, The Economist magazine’s assessment of the Catholic Church’s estimated $170 billion total U.S. income finds that about 57 percent (roughly $97 billion) goes to “health-care networks, followed by 28 percent on colleges, with parish and diocesan day-to-day operations accounting for just 6 percent, with the remaining $4.6 billion going to ‘national charitable activities.’”

By contrast, Christian spending on stereotypically “culture war” issues is relatively small. Schwarzwalder and Fagan were kind enough to cite and update my own 2011 research showing that while Christian culture war groups were well-funded, their budgets were tiny compared to the major Christian relief organizations and smaller than their leftist counterparts. According to Schwarzwalder and Fagan’s more recent calculations, the combined revenue of national and state social conservative groups is roughly $270 million — a number that is 34 times less than the amount Evangelicals on the poor. And that doesn’t even include the vast disparity in volunteer hours, where Christians by the millions donate their time to their communities and to overseas missions. World Vision alone enlisted the aid of more than 43,000 volunteers.

Some talking points are too good to fact-check, especially when they help advance the sexual revolution by slandering the faithful. Robert Putnam is one of America’s most respected academics. I’m currently reading his most recent book, Our Kids, and find it compelling (I’ll post about it at another time), but his sloppy statement is not just embarrassing — it’s indicative of how outright lies about Christians are widespread and accepted amongst our cultural elite. I’m sure he “knew” churches were focused on gays and contraception because, well, everybody knows that. 

I’ve spent my entire life in “organized religion” — first in a truly fundamentalist church, then (in my adult life) in the Presbyterian Church in America — and I’ve never heard a single sermon about contraception and less than ten about homosexuality. In fact, the first two items on our denomination’s website currently deal with disaster relief, responding to tornadoes in the U.S. and earthquakes in Nepal. Sexual politics is simply not a dominant topic compared to scriptural study, discussions of family, or exhortations to serve the poorest and most disadvantaged members of the community. If I were to critique the church, I’d say we need to discuss the sexual revolution issues a bit more — to equip kids and families to face the cultural onslaught. It’s possible to simultaneously resist a hedonistic culture and give our time and money to serve the poor. In fact, we can’t truly and effectively fight poverty without also resisting the culture of family disintegration that has made life so much more difficult for America’s poorest citizens.

Robert Putnam is wrong — and so is every other person who confidently declares that Christians have neglected the poor for the sake of the culture wars. When the elite scorns “organized religion,” it is scorning America’s most generous, most compassionate citizens.

UPDATE: Ramesh emailed to remind me that President Obama echoed Putnam’s comments at a recent poverty forum:

Obama gently criticized churches for how they engage politically. In terms of “what’s the thing that is really going to capture the essence of who we are as Christians, or as Catholics,” he said, concern about poverty “is oftentimes viewed as a ‘nice to have’ relative to an issue like abortion.”

Not true, Mr. President. Please see above.

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