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Most social scientists slight ordinary men and women in favor of statistics and grand theories. Not James Q. Wilson.

A prominent political scientist who recently died, Wilson cared enough about the ordinary Joe to ponder his life and his community keenly. Wilson used statistics when they could shed light on his subjects but never forgot the limited capacity of social science to depict, much less improve, the human condition.

Wilson’s concern for ordinary Americans was even more prominent in his subject matter than in his methodology.  So it’s fitting -- given the national protest over Obamacare’s assault on religious liberty now occurring -- that we recall Wilson’s study of the way religious charities help Americans.

One of his classic essays on the topic appeared in the Brookings Review’s spring 1999 issue. Wilson stressed that religiosity was more powerful in America than in other developed nations because “freedom of religious expression has not stunted religion, it has encouraged it.” And the kind of religious expression most encouraged in America “is often called fundamentalist,” meaning churches “in which the missionary impulse is particularly strong.”

Depending on converts to survive, such churches “are the ones most likely to reflect the wants and needs of ordinary people.” Yet scholars, who usually dislike religion, “have given relatively little attention” to the topic, even though this “great force” in America “makes a difference in human life.”

The greatest difference religion makes, Wilson argued, is not “solving” people’s problems. Rather, religion heightens problems “to the point that people finally feel they ought to do something about them.” In this way, religion creates an opportunity for “personal transformation.”

Wilson pointed to the “single most important organized example of personal transformation we have,” Alcoholics Anonymous, which eschews social science evaluation of its remarkable work “but uses faith in a supreme  being as a motivation for transforming the lives of drunkards.”

Wilson added that considerable evidence exists – and far more has accumulated in the 13 years since he wrote (see Baylor’s Institute for Studies of Religion) – that religion helps the least fortunate among us in many ways. For instance, it helps the poor to avoid pitfalls like crime, drug abuse, unwed parenthood, and other behaviors that block upward mobility and bring misery.

But I put that too abstractly: in practice, what Wilson means is that religiously motivated private citizens and groups work hard to help their neighbors:

in every big city and many small cities in America, church-based groups are working at reducing delinquency, drug abuse, gang wars, teenage pregnancy and single-parent homes.

More funding for such efforts, Wilson argued, should come from private donors and from corporations, though many in both groups either ignore or disparage such groups.

The Salvation Army, for example, deservedly gets such support, but smaller versions of the same religious effort – small churches with one or two ministers and a handful of volunteers – get nothing. 

Wilson doubted that government could do much to help; indeed, it was likely to do harm. Prophetically, over a dozen years ago Wilson speculated on ugly developments that have now come to pass. “One can imagine,” he wrote, a world in which government decided to fund such work, but then demanded that church leadership be “reshaped by equal employment opportunity criteria, and church membership [fall] under the Americans with Disabilities Act.”

Alas, that very Act was the club with which the current administration’s Equal Employment Opportunity Commission attempted to bludgeon a tiny Lutheran church and school in the Supreme Court’s recent landmark Hosanna-Tabor decision.

Even more recently, we have the Dept. of Health and Human Services’ regulation now being protested. It requires church-sponsored schools and charities to pay for insurance that provides free abortion-inducing drugs, sterilizations, and contraceptives. (For background, see the case page of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, the nonprofit law firm that won Hosanna-Tabor and now has suits pending against the HHS regulation).

Attorney Michael Greve of AEI eviscerates the back-alley way the administration promulgated the regulation with the help of some nonprofit friends, but let’s focus on the larger potential harm that the regulation could do to the least among us.

Wilson ended his essay by pleading that no one “impede” religious charities, which “may be the last best hope of the utterly disadvantaged.” By contrast, observes the Atlantic’s Megan McArdle, seconded by Ross Douthat of the New York Times, persons who defend the HHS attack on religious nonprofits seem

to assume that we’re doing the Catholic Church a big old favor by allowing them to provide health care and other social services to a needy public…. These people seem to be living in an alternate universe that I don’t have access to, where there’s  a positive glut of secular organizations who are just dying to provide top-notch care for the sick, the poor, and the dispossessed.      In the universe where I live, some of the best charity care is provided by religious groups – in part because they have extremely strong fundraising capabilities, in part because they often have access to an extremely deep and motivated pool of volunteers, and in part because they are often able to generate significant returns to scale and longevity. And of course, the comparative discretion and decentralization of private charity, religious or secular, makes it much more effective in many (not all ways) than government entitlements.

Douthat echoes Wilson by pointing to the central problem: “Government crowds out and co-opts the private sphere, first by making it impossible to run an institution that serves the public without having some sort of entanglement with the state, and then by using that entanglement to pretend that institutions with explicit religious missions and histories are somehow de facto secular instead.”

Theology has its deep mysteries, but deep mysteries are also at work when one human being helps another. No government should take this mysterious charity for granted – much less smother it.

FOOTNOTE: Don’t miss William Schambra’s PhilanthropyDaily tribute to James Q. Wilson, Michael Barone’s tribute, and the tributes at City Journal by Heather Mac Donald and Kay Hymowitz.

Disclosure: I am affiliated with the Becket Fund but had nothing to do with either case mentioned, and the opinions expressed here are entirely my own.

1 thought on “James Q. Wilson’s prophecy”

  1. Thank you, Scott, for a wonderfully insightful tribute to James Q. Wilson. He was wise in a way that many social scientists are not, and his understanding of the “faith factor” went deep enough to grasp the potential for profound human transformation. It is becoming harder and harder for the people on the front lines who are putting faith into action. His voice will be missed. But your advocacy is most welcome!

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