Blessing the Beast?

The scholar-journalist Lew Daly seems genuinely concerned about the poor, and about middle-class families and communities as well. The increasing precariousness of their positions in American society forms the backstory of his challenging new book. God’s Economy shows how powerful corporations and their wanton abuses have not only devastated families and communities financially over the past three decades, but also reshaped them for the worse, both socially and culturally. Government programs, meanwhile, offer inadequate levels of support—and do so in ways that interfere with authentic human development.

Daly sees a common thread running through these trends. In his view, the United States lacks sufficient “social pluralism.” Our legal, political, and economic systems have evolved to concentrate power among relatively few institutions, and in the process, social groups have been denied both their moral claim to the world’s abundance and their natural rights—including the right to have their lives and activities informed by religious belief and practice. In Daly’s words, families, churches, and communities have been “caught in the vise grips of market liberalism and liberal statism.” Only by reconstituting our laws and policies to validate the claims of families and community can we truly foster the common good, promote authentic development, and effectively meet social needs.

God’s Economy begins with an enthusiastic assessment of “charitable choice,” a program instituted by George W. Bush. Prior to Bush’s presidency, while religious organizations could apply for government money to perform various social-service and antipoverty functions, their religious character could not be reflected in the funded operations. There were prohibitions, for example, on having religious symbols in buildings where services were offered, on giving employment preferences to individuals based on religion, and on proselytizing those being helped. Through executive orders and administrative changes, Bush lifted the first two restrictions (though not the third). In essence, such organizations were no longer required to downplay their religious identity. Thus were federally funded “faith-based” programs born.

At first blush, the changes in funding procedures appear fairly innocuous, and Daly himself notes a lack of solid evidence to suggest that faith-based initiatives are more effective at reducing poverty or accomplishing other goals than non-faith-based approaches. Nonetheless, in his view, the change constitutes a milestone, “a new form of church-state relations in social-welfare provision.” He writes that “by enabling religious self-governance in the social safety net, the faith-based initiative established a new moral template for conceptualizing and codifying the natural rights of families and communities in our liberal economic order.” Such a new template might mean “the end of destabilizing, coercive, unaccountable economic powers that demean so many lives.” Daly envisions charitable choice opening a door to more widespread acceptance of social pluralism—and, eventually, a truly caring state founded on a more humane social order.

This particular policy change serves as a jumping-off point for a more general discussion of Daly’s preferred social order. God’s Economy contains fairly detailed treatments of how developments in constitutional and political theory, as well as recent legislative trends, support aspects of social pluralism. Daly also draws on Protestant and Catholic social thought, especially the ideas of “sphere sovereignty” and subsidiarity, which have helped underpin the forms of Christian Democratic welfare states evident in Germany and the Netherlands. This material, thoroughly researched and well developed, should serve as an important resource to scholars even as it helps raise the level of debate about faith-based programs and the proper place of families and communities in our social and political order.

As for Daly’s key claim that charitable choice’s “new moral template” may spell doom for the economic powers that demean our lives—well, that strikes me as debatable. While faith-based initiatives like charitable choice have the manifest function of helping the poor, they also have latent ideological functions, one of which may actually be to legitimize capitalism and its worst excesses. Buried deep in the discussions about such initiatives and their rationale is an assumption that poverty results primarily from moral and spiritual deficiencies, not structural inequities in the economic system. Segregation, poor schools, low wages, a lack of jobs and health care, de-industrialization and de-unionization: these are all downplayed. By drawing attention away from structural concerns, such programs can actually retard necessary fundamental reforms.

Urban outreach and mission organizations are simply not equipped to dismantle the structural barriers that create poverty, and allowing them to display religious symbols or hire differently will not change that fact. Lack of morality and spirituality are not major causes of poverty; violence, drug involvement, and teen pregnancy are as much a consequence of poverty as a cause. Local faith-based programs will likely have limited direct impact on the magnitude of these problems, even as they work tirelessly to mitigate their terrible effects. Worse, their lack of progress might end up being read as further confirmation that the poor are untreatable and inherently damaged, in line with usual “culture of poverty” descriptions. Once again, capitalism is absolved, and the urgency of reform diminished. The Gospel story of the Good Samaritan teaches that works of mercy are to be celebrated; but as the Jesuit Jon Sobrino points out, the way the story is written, no one thinks about the robbers. They are not caught—indeed, no one even goes after them. Thus they are free to rob again. Putting such great emphasis on faith-based programs might have the same result—the poor are helped but the institutions and structures responsible for their plight are rendered invisible.

Along these lines, one can reasonably question whether the Bush administration and its allies ever had a social-justice agenda or intended to empower families and communities. Their attacks on labor rights and their shredding of the social safety net merit at least some skepticism. Indeed, given such a record, one cannot dismiss out of hand the notion that the push for faith-based programs was based on the ideological function I just described. Of course, President Barack Obama is clearly not Bush, and so perhaps the future is brighter. But powerful political and financial opposition to the social reordering advocated by Daly remains. And at least some of the pushback comes from supporters of faith-based programs.

There are strong arguments to make in favor of greater social pluralism, and Lew Daly has ably presented them. He offers a vision of a society far more just than our current one; a society that promises a better and more authentic life for many. The particulars remain to be filled in, and Daly’s book would have benefited from more discussion of the practical aspects of social pluralism and the possibility of unintended consequences. But as it stands, God’s Economy lays important groundwork for a broader dialogue about the proper goals and forms of policy—and for a hope of transformation.

Published in the 2010-05-21 issue: 
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Robert DeFina is a professor in the Sociology Department at Villanova University. His teaching and research interests include labor markets, poverty, and social inequality. He is co-editor of the Journal of Catholic Social Thought.

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