|Meanwhile. . . .
Other things than political campaigns are going on this summer, but they have a hard time gaining notice. Media attention to them crowds out other events and spheres of life. Some of the latter do not suffer: sports, celebrity worlds, markets, etc. do well. Among the obscured ones come those under the category of “religion” or, institutionally, “churches,” “synagogues,” and the like. The Pew Research Center measures activity on their front, as Michael Lipka did in his report of July 18.
The headline is a question and a comment: “Are churches key to solving social problems? Fewer Americans now think so.” Accompanying graphs and statistics report not on whether churches are attempting to solve social problems, but what the observing public observes them doing or not doing. On that front, there are no surprises: only 58% think they are doing a “great deal” or “some,” while a growing number, now 39%, say “not much” or “nothing.” The number of those who say and see “not much” or “nothing” has grown 17% since 2008.
One hopes that the responses to the survey will be illuminating. Most responding bloggers, in the short space their format allows, cannot deal with complexity, nuance, or corollary and secondary themes, but these have to be kept in mind. Such blogs allow people who have a case, to enlarge it: note how the anti-religious, anti-church, etc. folks can be seen and heard venting ideologies. Some of the implied critiques can be helpful to problem-solvers who are members and advocates of churches and synagogues, and we can have no doubt but that these findings will reach many a pulpiteer or thoughtful congregation. Yet merely pointing, weeping, or wailing will not do anyone much good.
So there are questions: were perceptions of church involvements in 2008 or earlier accurate? Has the change come through changes in the media? What does “solving social problems” mean? Are the big ones “solvable,” or are they only “addressable”? Who really pictures the epochal refugee crises of our day as being “solvable.” Or the destructive human issues in “climate change?” And are any religious institutions capable of addressing the issues on such a vast scene that it is fair to ask thus about them?
Let it be noticed that, on this question, the most positively concerned members of the public are themselves the members of churches and synagogues who measure current priorities and actions in the light of their core beliefs or the mandates, calls, invitations, and judgments which their animating and judging texts keep vivid. Close-up observers know that some “decline” results from changes in the cultural environment. Thus, leaders in much immigrant and refugee relief and attempts to care for the poor and ill, used to use their resources, based on “charitable giving,” to link with governmental agencies. But in many cases (as in our own state of Illinois) most of the governmental funds are unavailable because of political binds.
And one has to ask what “churches” here means. Ecumenical and denominational resources have little to offer, though many try. It comes down to congregations, gatherings, and voluntary organizations to do their part in “addressing,” if not “solving” social problems. We see that on some of our personally chosen social fronts: micro-lending, refugee resettlement, educating the disadvantaged and the like. When churches and synagogues are not only observed and reported on as losing heart or finding other priorities than the “social” ones, but actually failing and falling, millions get hurt. Attending to these local and voluntary fronts is, in dated language, “where the action is.” On some scales, some problems, if not solved, are there addressed, and the “social” scene and the people who make it up experience life enhanced
Martin E. Marty is the Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus of the History of Modern Christianity at the University of Chicago Divinity School. His biography, publications, and contact information can be found at www.memarty.com.