For those in poverty, or those simply facing tough times, churches are often places they turn to for help. It may be organized aid: soup kitchens and food pantries. It may be a gas card given to a single mom who is struggling to get from one pay day to another. But if that help comes with merely a handout, and no spiritual support, is the church failing the poor?
Ross Douthat says so. In his May 16 column for The New York Times, Douthat first takes to task the “progressive” claim that churches are too focused on hot-button issues like same-sex marriage and abortion, and not enough on really helping people.
Over the last 30 years,” Harvard’s Robert Putnam told The Washington Post, “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 … It’s been entirely focused on issues of homosexuality and contraception and not at all focused on issues of poverty.”
President Obama’s version, delivered when he shared a stage with Putnam at Georgetown University, was nuanced but similar in thrust: “Despite great caring and concern,” the president remarked, when churches pick “the defining issue” that’s “really going to capture the essence of who we are as Christians,” fighting poverty is often seen as merely “nice to have” compared to “an issue like abortion.”
It would be too kind to call these comments wrong; they were ridiculous.
Douthat says you could attend services for months on end at any given Christian church and never once hear a word spoken about same-sex marriage, gender identity, contraception or even “living together.” Most pastors – hold onto your hats – preach on the Scripture. While church doctrine may hold sway in the press, the day-to-day life of a church is not political; it’s theological.
However, Douthat is not going to let the church off easy. Simply handing stuff out to poor people isn’t enough.
There is a case that churches are failing poorer Americans. But the problem isn’t how they spend money or play politics. It’s a more basic failure to reach out, integrate, and keep them in the pews.
This is the striking story of the last 30 years: Despite the stereotype of religion as something that people “cling to” (to quote a different moment of condescension from this president) in desperate circumstances, actual religious practice has collapsed more quickly among Americans with weaker economic prospects than it has among the college-educated upper class.
Mere religious affiliation has weakened for the poor and working class as well. The much-discussed rise of the “nones” — Americans with no religious affiliation — has been happening in blue -collar America as well as among the hyper-educated.
From a religious perspective, this a signal failure: A church that pays out to help the poor, but doesn’t pray with them, looks less like a church than what Pope Francis has described, unfavorably, as merely another N.G.O.
Do the poor feel as if they “belong” in church, to a church? If not, then churches really are failing.