On conservative religious activism, the numbers speak for themselves (COMMENTARY)

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Teams from the Christian relief agency World Vision distribute food aid to villages in Myanmar by boat because many roads were washed away by Cyclone Nargis, which claimed more than 140,000 lives when it roared ashore on May 1, 2008. Religion News Service photo courtesy of Wah Eh Htoo/World Vision

Teams from the Christian relief agency World Vision distribute food aid to villages in Myanmar by boat because many roads were washed away by Cyclone Nargis, which claimed more than 140,000 lives when it roared ashore on May 1, 2008. Religion News Service photo courtesy of Wah Eh Htoo/World Vision

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WASHINGTON (RNS) Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam says churches are "entirely focused" on abortion and same-sex marriage. The numbers tell a different story.

  • Diogenes

    Will this truth draw any praise from the progressive Left? No, because they will castigate those who demonstrate these humanities as having evil, ulterior, and hypocritical motives.

  • Sure, Putnam overstated his case a little– but in the context of the interview, he was mostly referring to political organizing around policies to decrease poverty. For one thing, his statement does not apply to African-American churches, which in many ways count as “evangelical”, nor does it actually take Catholic advocacy seriously either. I think he has a fair point that a significant chunk of conservative faith leaders haven’t really had this on their national political agenda, but I don’t think that’s so much because they were hyper focused on abortion/gay marriage as it is that many of these folks in question legitimately believe that conservative economic policies are better for the poor (see, for example, what Arthur Brooks said at the panel the other day.) So Mr. Schwarzwalder and Dr. Fagan are right– fighting poverty is of enormous importance to evangelicals and they put their money where their mouth is, but Putnam is still right in that their strategy is off somewhat.

  • JM

    I actually really love Putnam. I assume the author of this piece has never read Putnam/Campbell’s American Grace because one section of this book argues that religious groups, specifically American Christians, are “nicer” than secular groups. Putnam/Campbell uses very similar stats that the author used here, the two argue that through looking at religious volunteerism you can see what a community values. Basically, they conclude that Christians, and other religious groups as well, value improving the society at large. So basically this is an attack on a man who has tried to argue they we are a nice group of people comparatively…perhaps he should take his kind words back…

  • JM

    Oh and side note, can we please all notice that Putnam said “most organized religion” and made no direct reference to Christianity?

  • MarkE

    Let’s see, why are the authors so ticked off? Hmm, could it be they are guilty of the charge – I’ve never come across anything from FRC that spoke to helping the poor and needy, rescuing the downtrodden and disaster survivors, or making the world a better place. They are a single-minded, limited social issue organization. Not one public ounce of sweat or energy by this “evangelical” outfit has been used to improve those in need. Perhaps they protestest to much?

  • Shawnie5

    Or maybe leave his kind words and simply take his mistaken math back?

  • Larry

    The authors of course don’t count the millions of dollars contributed to PAC’s and campaign funds for politicians.The ones they gladly endorse. Those who seem uninteresting in the poor and hell bent on nosing into what people do in their bedrooms.

    Yes, various Christian lobbying groups have pathetic budgets in comparison to international charity groups. But they also don’t represent the bulk of money spent on “social conservative” political causes.

    Also the inclusion of Samaritan’s purse dishonest as heck. Samaritan’s purse has been contributing funds to support the new efforts at legalized discrimination, just like the FRC. Plus their work for is generally pilloried for blatant prosletyzing that undermines efforts for the poor.

    Like many things coming out of the FRC, it is dishonest, unsupported by evidence and out to paint a rosier picture of conservative Christians than reality permits.

  • Larry

    Of course they are guilty of the charge. They are the epitome of evangelical efforts at discriminatory social agendas.

    Such cognitive dissonance is not uncommon for them. The good souls at the FRC have never been constrained by anything such as facts, rational arguments or concern for fellow human beings.

  • Let me respond to the criticisms:
    (1) In the context of his comments, it’s clear Dr. Putnam is referring to Christianity – traditional, theologically orthodox Christianity, most specifically – in using the term “organized religion.”
    (2) Of course Dr. Fagan and I did not count the political donations attendant to activism, Right or Left. Dr. Putnam referred to religious organizations; it was that to which we responded.
    (3) FRC works with many domestic and international ministries active in addressing issues of poverty and related ills. We are an active member of the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability, the umbrella group for Evangelical charities. Also, go to our Website and search for the term poverty and you’ll find our writings regarding this issue. However, we focus on three areas of public policy – marriage, family, and human sexuality; sanctity of life; and religious liberty and more than World Vision files amicus briefs on same-sex marriage.

  • Shawnie5

    Of course. See below.

  • Jack

    I haven’t read one post which refutes the article’s refutation of Putnam.

    The bottom line is that the article easily refuted Putnam’s assertion and there is really nothing left to say.

  • Eric

    “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.”

    One, I’d like to see a link for the spending stat. I don’t doubt WV’s numbers are huge, but according to their own numbers, in 2012 they spent $900 mil on program services for those in need.

    Two, and more important here, the authors–incredibly–say nothing–not one freaking word–about the vocal and vicious backlash against WV when they (ever so briefly) changed their policy about hiring married gay employees. The number of sponsorships WV lost is now estimated to be between 15,000 and 19,000. Yep, evangelicals are soooo much more concerned about other things than teh gayz that they abandoned almost 20,000 needy kids in 48 hours rather than continue to give to reputable, successful…

  • Eric

    In other words, WV does not support the authors’ case; it dramatically refutes their claim. The authors’ can’t claim WV as evidence conservative Christians care as much or more about poverty than about sex b/c WV itself was bullied over matters of sex.

  • Eric

    “Yes, various Christian lobbying groups have pathetic budgets in comparison to international charity groups. But they also don’t represent the bulk of money spent on “social conservative” political causes.”

    And really, the authors’ are comparing apples to oranges when they compare charitable to political donations. It’s much cheaper to buy political influence than to support people in need.

  • Eric

    “I don’t think that’s so much because they were hyper focused on abortion/gay marriage as it is that many of these folks in question legitimately believe that conservative economic policies are better for the poor (see, for example, what Arthur Brooks said at the panel the other day.)”

    The point about conservative economic policies is spot on. This is why conservatives/evangelicals will give more to Samaritan’s Purse or WV than to Focus on the Family, but *won’t* create a political advocacy group called Focus on Poverty. That’s what Putnam was really getting at in the interview:

    “As I’ve said repeatedly, religious people are nicer [than non-religious]. They are more likely to give to charity, and to volunteer compared with the public in general. But what has not happened is the move from, “I, Joe Blow, want to help this poor person,” to “My church is involved in the national conversation about poverty and what to do about it.”

  • Eric

    So what? The authors (perhaps) refuted one poorly worded and exaggerated claim in one sentence in one interview. Big deal. His larger point was less about how much money evangelicals/conservatives spend combatting poverty than about how little evangelicals lead the national–that is, cultural and political–discussion about combatting poverty. Funny how that, among other things, got little attention from these authors, who are clearly more concerned about scoring pedantic points in a sophomoric debate than about the actual issues at hand.

  • Diogenes

    Perhaps they would rather be admonished by their long time advocates and supporters than be bullied by gay rights advocates hysterical over the response of those who value their conscience and spiritual principles above ‘cultural progress.’ Further, in my own case, when WV reversed themselves, I re-committed my support. Additionally, I have supported other evangelical groups not named in the article that are whole heartedly invested in providing succor to the poor, particularly here at home. The Christian Appalachian Project for instance. And providing the ‘bread’ of the Gospel (proselytizing) along with the everyday variety is wholly consistent with the teachings of Jesus.

  • Eric

    “Further, in my own case, when WV reversed themselves, I re-committed my support.”

    How noble. You make baby Jesus proud. 0.o

  • Larry

    Diogenes, your little rant had nothing to do with facts here. WV chose voluntarily, without pressure from the outside, to give its gay employees spousal benefits. The bullies were the anti-gay christian bigots who threatened to cut off donations until their policy was reversed. They chose to let children starve lest WV treat gay married couples in an equitable manner,

    There is no conscience here. Merely trying to enforce hatred using coercion. WV wouldn’t hate the way you wanted them to, so they had to be punished.

    Btw proseltyzing as a condition of charity is about the most backhanded, self-serving, form of giving out there. Another example of coercion Christians engage in when it comes to charity.

  • Larry

    “FRC works with many domestic and international ministries active in addressing issues of poverty and related ills”

    Bullcrap! They do nothing of the sort.

    They are a lobby group. One whose goals are always related to the religious right agenda:
    -Attacking civil liberties of gays
    -Attacking abortion rights
    -Attacking fertility science
    -Attacking freedom of speech

    Mr. Schwarzwalder, you and your organization have no problem lying in public to support their various positions. This is no different.

    Your little group even supported having people executed in service of your religion.
    http://thinkprogress.org/lgbt/2012/11/30/1262421/family-research-council-blatantly-lies-about-supporting-ugandas-kill-the-gays-bill/

  • Eric

    Mr. Schwarzwalder, how can you list World Vision as your premiere example of an *evangelical* charitable organization without saying one word about the vocal and vicious backlash against WV when they (ever so briefly) changed their policy about hiring married gay employees last year?

    The number of sponsorships WV lost is now estimated to be between 15,000 and 19,000. How do you square that with your claim that evangelical and conservative Christians really are concerned more about poverty and hunger than about same-sex marriage and related issues of sexual morality?

    Had World Vision not abandoned its employee policy (within 48 hrs), would you still include them in your parade of Christian groups?

  • Shawnie5

    This all might matter if World Vision were the only Christian international relief organization out there. There are hundreds. What doesn’t go into one bucket easily goes into another.

  • Larry

    Whatever makes the notion of intentionally starving children go down better. I am not willing to cut off aid to the impoverished, aid that I have given on many other occasions, just to enforce personal prejudices. But evidently you were.

    You can keep claiming that Christian belief gives you some kind of moral compass, but deeds say otherwise.

  • Eric

    You’re changing the subject, Shawnie5. Not about whether or not other Christian charities exist. About using WV as evidence of the authors’s claim that evangelicals care more about poverty than sexual morality.

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  • shawnie5

    Nonsense. Holding WV accountable for their policies does not in any manner diminish opportunities for battling poverty. There are many other avenues for doing that.

    How much have you donated to WV, BTW?

  • Eric

    Shawnie5, you are still off-topic. Get back to us when you can follow an argument.

  • Larry

    It diminished WV’s ability to battle poverty.

    For what reason was it?

    People annoyed over the charity’s treatment of its own employees. it was more equitable than they desired. How very venal.

  • shawnie5

    On the contrary, Eric. My disagreement is not because I don’t follow your argument but because your argument makes no sense.

    How much HAVE you given to WV?

  • shawnie5

    @Larry: It diminished WV’s ability to fight poverty and enhanced other organizations’ ability to fight it. In the overall scheme of faith-based international aid, it’s a wash.

    How much have YOU given to WV?

  • Eric

    Sure my argument doesn’t make sense, Shawnie5. That’s why you have to keep evading the real points at issue, defending ideas no one put forward, and engaging in ad hominem rhetoric.

    Let’s make this clear, yet again, for the logic-impaired:

    You can’t use by World Vision as evidence that evangelicals care more about poverty than about sexual morality because evangelicals stopped giving through World Vision when the organization tried to change their hiring policies to include married gay couples. In other words, those evangelicals/conservatives demonstrably put issues of sexual morality before issues of poverty.

    It doesn’t matter–for the authors’ claim–if those evangelicals later gave through other charitable organizations (that towed the line on same-sex marriage) because they clearly made opposing equality for gays and lesbians a higher priority than supporting poverty and famine relief *in this instance.” And it is authors’ claim about evangelical generosity that…

  • shawnie5

    I evade nothing, and nothing I’ve said is an ad hom. “In this instance” is exactly what makes your argument illogical.

    How come you won’t answer a relatively simple question about how much you’ve given to WV?

  • Susan

    Shawnie5 is well established here as a slippery evader and for her use of ad homs. She’s trying to evade your point again with her question. Beware! She’s a snake!

  • shawnie5

    I evade nothing. I challenged his point quite openly and directly. But he has evaded every question and now, right on cue, you have just come along and furnished the ad homs.

    Thank you for your characteristic contribution. But I would still like to know how much he has contributed to WV.

  • Eric

    Now you are accusing *me* of being evasive, Shawnie5? That’s rich. The only thing you’ve said that I’ve not addressed is how much I’ve given to WV. And I’m not answering that because it is irrelevant to the authors’ claims and this discussion. It is an accusatory *personal* question aimed to bring into question the moral standing of an interlocutor. Hence, ad hominem.

  • Shawnie5

    It is nothing of the sort. It figures logically into the issue at hand and you continue to evade.

  • Eric

    Let’s give up it up for Shawnie5, folks. Proud graduate of the I’m Rubber, You’re Glue School of Debate and Rhetoric.

  • Diogenes

    Not a condition in the majority of cases, nor is anyone required to accept charity, particularly if their conscience rights are so offended by receiving some spiritual counsel. Perhaps if you’d read some of the testimonies of people who’ve received the bread of sustenance and The Bread of Life together, and had their lives completely turned around by it, you’d be much better informed on the issue As to whether or not WV was under no pressure to extend the benefits which were later rescinded, well, there’s pressure and there’s pressure. Nor did anyone “let children starve,’ most, iof not all, merely redirected their giving.

  • Eric

    “Not a condition in the majority of cases, nor is anyone required to accept charity, particularly if their conscience rights are so offended by receiving some spiritual counsel.”

    Yep, “free” to accept charity with strings attached or continue to go without food or shelter or other basics. You know, comments like yours that defend the most questionable behavior of conservative Christians are almost as appalling as the behavior itself. Just tell us how long the sermon has to be before people get fed. The full 45-minute fire-and-brimstone-special? Or will a 10-minute homily be enough?

    “merely redirected their giving.”

    Perhaps if you understood the nature of WV’s aid programs, especially child sponsorship, you’d know that giving through WV isn’t an impersonal financial transaction that can be duplicated just by switching charities like switching Pepsi for Coke. Of course, if to you those kids are just souls waiting to be counted in heaven, then you already don’t care…

  • Shawnie5

    I see. Ad homs and evasion from those complaining of ad homs and evasion. Drearily familiar. Well, thank you at least for exposing your own hypocrisy, if nothing else.

  • Larry

    “It diminished WV’s ability to fight poverty”

    There Shawnie, we are in agreement. Nothing more is necessary. The rest is merely excuses to feel better about such terrible conduct by people like yourself.

  • Shawnie5

    You mean, nothing more supports your argument — that it enhanced other Christian charities’ ability to fight poverty.

    How much have YOU given to WV, Larry?

  • Steve A.

    The $$, time and effort made by those in the Kingdom of God and mentioned above have very little to do with the issue at hand. It’s not Putnam’s fault that he doesn’t see the work of World Vision, Catholic Ministries…. and it’s not his job as a social commentator to go look for it. From his vantage point he sees the moral issues addressed in print of which David French, Esq. (Harvard Law) in the National Review might be the #1 offender of drivel extraordinaire of all. Look at FoxNews for a day. See what Pat Robertson is saying. That’s what Putnam sees. Check out French’s ACLJ and all the petitions and comments made. I know a bit about what’s going on in the Kingdom because I’m in it. Pretend you’re an outsider. Good like finding it when you don’t know where to look. It’s about perceptions and from Putnam’s point of view he reports what he sees. It’s up to us to change those perceptions – less words – more deeds???

  • Steve A.

    Rob Schwarzwalder and Pat Fagan’s response to Putnam proves Putnam right. If the premises/conclusions of Schwarzwalder and Fagan were true Putnam would have no reason to address the issue at all. There would be nothing to discover.

    Putnam sees what he sees because that’s what he sees over and over – day after day (media, social media). It’s not his responsibility to search for Kingdom work with regard to the poor. It’s ours to effect and reveal.

    Why does Putnam not see it? It’s not evident and who’s to blame for that.

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  • Paul

    So you think somehow that shows he meant ‘organized religions except Christianity’?

  • Andy

    Of *course* Christians are involved in the national conversation about poverty: they steadfastly campaign for pro-family policies such as antiabortion laws and the maintenance of traditional man-woman marriage. One reason for pursuing both of those policy goals is because **strong families militate against poverty.**

    Therefore it’s entirely appropriate – in the interest of reducing poverty (though hardly for that reason alone) – to work aggressively against societal/legislative forces that damage the family.

  • Andy

    How has anyone “attacked” Putnam here? They’ve corrected his erroneous view of how / where Christian organizations spend their resources.

  • Andy

    Yeah, because we all “know” that FRC’s priorities have zero ramifications for the strength of the family unit or, in turn, the impact of healthy families on poverty, right…? (Eye-roll)

  • Andy

    So every single Christian organization must have the exact-same agenda and budget breakdown? Why can’t some focus on this, and some on that…?

    And by the way – every single human being who’s ever lived has “discriminated.” Being discriminatory – in some way, shape, form, or measure – is literally unavoidable. You can’t be friends or partners or allies with literally everyone; you make differentiations – i.e., you discriminate – based on your convictions about the origin and meaning of life.

    You do it just like FRC and everyone else.

  • Andy

    Christians are RIGHT to be more concerned about family and sexuality than about poverty. Why? Because poverty won’t send you to hell; poverty doesn’t put you under God’s judgment.

    But undermining the family and pursuing sexual immorality does precisely that (along with a host of other sins, not just those).

    Life isn’t restricted to THIS life – our 80 or 90 years in our current bodies before they finally break down and die. Life includes eternity, and morality has infinitely greater ramifications for eternity than does poverty.

    But you’ll reject that because you’ve already embraced an antibiblical, antiGod worldview. That’s your choice – but don’t act like you haven’t simply opted for an alternative religion, because that’s exactly what you’ve done.

  • Andy

    Poverty would be rapidly dealt with if the West decreased its level of socialism and immorality. But nobody wants to do that, because they’d rather have government handouts and the “right” to boink whomever they wish, whenever they wish, consequences be damned.

  • Andy

    Uh, no, it’s not a HARVARD PROFESSOR’s job to “report what he sees.” It’s his job (or ought to be) to get his facts straight before he makes a claim of that nature, in an interview for a major newspaper.

  • Andy

    Really? There’s “no conscience here”? So no matter what my conscience tells me, no matter what the Word of God tells me – I should just go ahead and support whatever fracked-up agenda the prevailing society is telling me to support?

  • Andy

    And by the way, what was “hateful” about those who criticized WV’s short-lived policy, and withdrew their support because of it? Please tell me how/why that equates to “hatred.”

  • Andy

    He did precisely what the LORD Jesus wanted. Just so you’re aware: Jesus didn’t remain a baby (you may have, but Jesus and a host of other human beings haven’t). Jesus became a man, died on a Roman cross for your sins and mine, resurrected on the third day, and will return again to judge the entire world (that includes you).

  • Andy

    This is a ridiculous response. What are you expecting: that the stats on charity – and there are tons of those – will be pubicly disseminated day after day, year after year, so that all of us will be simultaneously aware of it without having to lift a finger? Good grief, man, think: these organizations make their numbers available for anyone who cares to be objective and curious enough to seek them out. Nobody’s hiding anything. Putnam’s problem is either that (a) he leaped to conclusions before getting his facts straight, or (b) he already knew what the facts were, but intentionally misrepresented such groups.

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