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Faith in Philanthropy: The Awesome Power of Belief


In this article: Congregational attendance and affiliation may not be measuring the innovation and vibrancy of contemporary faith communities, as “signs of life are popping up elsewhere: in conversations with chaplains, in communities started online that end up forming in-person bonds as well, in social-justice groups rooted in shared faith.” Writing, Wendy Cadge and Elan Babchuck see a “swell of spiritual creativity” in the “tectonic shift in the landscape of American religious life.” religious life.”


This article was originally published by the Lilly Family School of Philosophy on February 23, 2023, by Amir Pasic, Eugene R. Tempel Dean



When you look at the largest piece of the pie in the annual report on American philanthropy, Giving USA*, it is perhaps natural to think of it as a separate category, disconnected from “secular” good works pursued by nonprofits in other categories. Religion, of course, is deeply enmeshed in our histories, our constitutional foundations, and the way we find meaning when confronting our own mortality and that of our loved ones.


But keeping faith in its own box is a mistake. It diminishes our ability to get things done, no matter what our cause. First, communities we seek to engage to do good work are often organized on faith principles. Second, organized faiths, both established and emerging, have significant effects on our public and personal lives – and we may very well be experiencing a new surge of energy on this front. And, finally, our ability to share beliefs in things we cannot see, whether they are spiritual or aspirational, is a terrific power we should all seek to appreciate and understand better. It is what gives purpose to the work we do.

Professor David King rightfully reminds us that focusing primarily on giving to congregations undercounts the role of faith-based communities in education, health, human services, and international giving. Indeed, secular governmental policies to support community development at home and abroad collaborate directly with faith communities. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development engages faith-based community organizations because they “form the bedrock of our society.” USAID has a similar effort to support its work abroad. It joined our Lake Institute on Faith & Giving and our Muslim Philanthropy Initiative at the Vatican’s first gathering on faith and philanthropy last fall.


Too much of this-worldly civic activity takes place in faith communities for them to be ignored. Whether or not you are a booster of World Vision, St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, Notre Dame or Yeshiva universities, The Salvation Army, your parochial school, or your local chapter of Alcoholics Anonymous, faith is the common theme. Ordained leaders of different faiths have also been important framers of our public discourse as well as our sense of civic duty and civic responsibility, with Martin Luther King Jr. being the signal American example of the twentieth century.


Keeping religion out of the public realm is wise counsel when religious difference is used to motivate conflict and exclusion. Perhaps this is why many view giving to religion as fundamentally different from giving to all other areas. In the U.S. giving to religion is declining as a share of total giving. At the same time, we see a decrease in traditional religious affiliation. But it would be a mistake to think that faith is so easily separable and that legacy religions somehow exhaust what faith is about in civil society.


Congregational attendance and affiliation may not be measuring the innovation and vibrancy of contemporary faith communities, as “signs of life are popping up elsewhere: in conversations with chaplains, in communities started online that end up forming in-person bonds as well, in social-justice groups rooted in shared faith.” Writing in The Atlantic, Wendy Cadge and Elan Babchuk see a “swell of spiritual creativity” in the “tectonic shift in the landscape of American religious life.”

I like to remember this insight as I read interpretations of how politics and other ideologies are rushing in to substitute for the decline in affiliation with traditional religions. Often the assumption is that these new spiritualities, like their more traditional counterparts, pull us away from the kind of rational discourse through which we can bargain and compromise about concrete, tangible things that need to be dealt with in arranging the affairs of the world.


This misses the point and the power of faith. It is inescapable, even required, for us to have purpose and meaning in what we do. It is sometimes not even religious. The affection and belief in the nation that emerged in the nineteenth century was famously termed an “imagined community” by Benedict Anderson. We have seen subsequent widespread collective beliefs in the value of other entities that only exist because we agree to believe that they do. In different periods and places the state and the market have dominated our aspirations for what to believe in as we build for the future.


Finally, in the everyday work we do faith need not be fervent or sublime. Sometimes it is as simple as a vision statement and list of values. The key point is that there is no science or algorithm to tell us what purpose to pursue or what to value. This is the domain of normative knowledge, about what should be, something that preoccupies the humanities that are currently out of favor in universities.


Take strategic planning as an example. We focus on goals and metrics and evaluation, but the goal of the exercise is to imagine and share a faith in a reality that does not yet exist, then plan how to make it a reality. The technology based on faith that built the great edifices of human civilization over multiple generations is today distilled into vision and mission statements for our workplaces.


When it takes the form of a mundane tool, faith allows us to imagine together for all kinds of useful reasons. One useful endeavor that I have spent many years pursuing is education.

I have a clear recollection of a convocation that began the academic year at Brown University in 1995. The president spoke eloquently about the fact that we had no evidence of the fruits of future discovery to which our enterprise was devoted. We could not be certain that the education we so valued would yield what we all gathered there to sow and reap. He convinced us that the very foundation of the rational institution devoted to advancing knowledge with evidence was grounded in nothing more concrete than our shared faith.


On that fall afternoon in Providence, Vartan Gregorian, who later led Carnegie Corporation for almost a quarter century, revealed the workings of a powerful human tool that allows us to devote ourselves collectively to what exists only in our shared imagination. At a time when the academy is suffering a crisis of faith, our Lake Institute on Faith & Giving is integral to who we are at the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy. It helps us explore the power of shared belief in philanthropy as a potential source of dignified possibilities that we have only begun to imagine.

By Amir Pasic, Eugene R. Tempel Dean

*Giving USA is published by Giving USA Foundation. It is researched and written by the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy.



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