Commentary Magazine

Religion and Social Work, by F. Ernest Johnson

Serving the Community
Religion and Social Work
Edited by F. Ernest Johnson
Harper. 194 pp. $3.00


The Jewish Theological Seminary of America, under whose auspices we get this symposium on religion and social work, can hardly be accused of sectarian bias. If my count is correct only one of the fourteen contributors to the volume is of undetermined religious affiliation, while there are two Jews, two Roman Catholics, and nine Protestants. The lecturers represent such various occupations as that of pastor, lawyer, theologian, university professor, ecclesiastical officer, director of non-sectarian social work, officer of a Federal agency, and director of Jewish community services.

Part of the interest of this book lies in what it tells us of the range of social work activities carried on under religious auspices. The main focus appears to be on the care of children and of the aged, but there are also hospitals, community centers, loan societies, summer camps, day nurseries, adoption agencies, institutional chaplaincies, organizations for family case work, and special services for seamen, migrants, refugees, unmarried mothers, the deaf, the blind, and the handicapped. Indeed, there are few areas of human need where organized religion fails to lend a helping hand.

Since this is an inter-faith symposium, it provides instructive data on the trends that obtain in the different religious groups. It appears that the Roman Catholic emphasis is very much on the care of children, with some concern also for the aged, and also with not a little anxiety for preserving the purity of the faith of those who are wards of governmental agencies. Among Protestants in the past there was a marked disposition to promote non-sectarian agencies for social work, but there is something of a trend today toward denominational institutions. Jewish social work is unique in that it is carried on under the auspices of the entire Jewish community rather than under the direct supervision of the temple and the synagogue, and also manages to maintain high standards of professional competence for its workers. All of these religious agencies, however, are being severely crowded by two rivals: the non-sectarian private welfare agency, and the welfare state.

The weakest point in this symposium is the attempt to deal with the specifically religious foundations of social work. Perhaps what is missing is a forceful and challenging presentation by a humanist. Even Reinhold Niebuhr, in his 1930 lectures on The Contribution of Religion to Social Work, while stressing the positive role of religion, saw fit to give at least one section to “Religion as a Cause of Personal and Social Maladjustment.” What we get in the present writing is a few slaps at Protestant neo-orthodoxy by Arthur Swift, Jr., and an affirmation of a melioristic faith in social progress, with various observations by other contributors that social work is rooted in the human need to love and to be loved, that it is an expression of the zedekah (charity) of the Hebrew-Christian heritage, and that religion may provide the vision and the motivation for coping with life’s vicissitudes. All of this may be important and true, but it is not a great deal more than would be affirmed by many an enlightened humanist. If there is such a thing as a theology of social work, then let us have it. But if there is none, let us cease to argue that religious agencies have anything special to contribute to social work that cannot be done as well or better by non-sectarian agencies.

Apart from this vagueness about fundamentals, there is general agreement among the lecturers that it is the business of organized religion to pioneer new areas for social service, to work with the tough cases, and to cooperate intelligently with existing social agencies. Today it is still possible for the ethically sensitive religious congregation to provide leadership in areas of human need which have not yet come to the attention of established agencies. It is also possible to show the dedicated courage of men of faith who move in where more rational spirits hesitate to go. So Robert W. Spike tells of the compliment he received from a policeman as he tackled his toughest job in juvenile delinquency from a church in Washington Square: “Why, you have the rejects from every social agency in Lower Manhattan.” As for the arts of cooperation between the clergyman and the non-sectarian social worker, these are not yet as well developed as they should be, but Professor Thomas Bigham of General Theological Seminary gives an excellent statement in principle and in detail of how it can be done.



The really awkward issue that emerges in this symposium has to do with the relationship between church and state. Chapter 11 is devoted to a panel discussion on “State Aid for Religious Social Work” between a Roman Catholic lawyer, a Methodist ecclesiastic, and a member of the National Jewish Welfare Board. We learn that there are already certain forms of state aid provided to religious institutions for the care of children and of the aged on a per capita basis. Also, at one time New York City gave long-term leases on land at a dollar a year to religious groups that would construct congregate homes for dependent and neglected children. These facts come to us from all three members of the panel, but the principle behind them gets its most vigorous defense by the Roman Catholic.

Mr. Edmond B. Butler, the Catholic, has three phases to his argument. It costs more money to run a government institution than to run a private institution. In part this is a matter of red tape in requisitioning equipment, and in part a matter of triplicate jurisdictions—city, state, Federal—when it comes to auditing. In the second place, says Mr. Butler, state aid for religious social work is not really an instance of public “support” but rather a “payment for services rendered”—for services that are actually the responsibility of the city or the state, and that would cost more if handled by them. Finally, owing to our tax structure, the government carries off the surplus money that used to go into philanthropy, and is therefore obligated to replace the dollar that is no longer there. If such payment for services rendered should happen to strengthen a religious institution, then this simply means that the institution is better able to serve the community.

If this position has any political dynamic behind it, we may wonder what must be the outcome. Because the three arguments used for state aid to religious social work can also be used in behalf of state aid to education under religious auspices, and indeed of state aid to any type of religious philanthropy whatsoever. The arguments rest, of course, on the premise that all such matters are really the responsibility of the government, and not of the private, voluntary groups in a pluralistic society.



In this connection it is interesting that the chairman of the symposium, F. Ernest Johnson, in his concluding reflections, suggests that Protestants, as the majority group in the nation, have less justification for setting up a distinctive set of agencies, and ought to be more ready to throw their support to non-sectarian devices. Naturally, when he speaks of the Protestant majority he is not thinking of the area in which these lectures are given, since the entire northeastern corner of our country—New York, New Jersey, and all of the New England states—is now preponderantly Roman Catholic, as are also California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Louisiana. No doubt Mr. Johnson’s intentions are so liberal as to reach beyond the immediate community in which he finds himself. But one wonders if it would be in order now for Protestants in New York to adopt the minority technique of building up their own social work and educational institutions, while Roman Catholics are encouraged to turn their support to the non-sectarian agencies. Or should we be content simply with the benevolent principle of laissez faire, that those who are disposed to relax religious controls should relax them, and those who are disposed to extend religious controls should extend them?


About the Author

Pin It on Pinterest

Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
for full access to
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
Don't have a log in?
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.