Working Class Spiritual Poverty: The Potential of Faith-Based Organizations

A version of this article was originally published on the Institutional Religious Freedom Alliance’s website.

By Chelsea Langston Bombino

After the 2016 election of Donald Trump, journalists, political analysts and demographers all wondered what they had missed. In the following months, a steady stream of articles and commentary appeared on major news publications, radio and television programs. A predominant theme soon emerged: the political and media elite had overlooked and underestimated working-class Americans in Middle America. Beyond underestimation, establishment voices had categorically misunderstood the daily experiences and animating paradigms through which working-class individuals made sense of their world. In these parts of the country, families are experiencing the poverty that comes with diminishing wages and nonexistent opportunities for better jobs. Manufacturing and skilled trade professions that once afforded families the opportunity to live a middle-class lifestyle are drying up.

But beyond the sheer economic poverty many in the Rust Belt or rural Midwest are experiencing, there is another type of poverty — perhaps even more pervasive and soul crushing than financial loss. Relational and spiritual poverty is often experienced by working class Americans, meaning they are isolated from networks, associations and organizations that provide citizens connections and resources that have the ability to help them grow. In his 2016 best-selling memoir Hillbilly Elegy, J. D. Vance discusses the phenomenon of “hillbillies” who moved from the south to northern states in the middle of the 20th century in pursuit of better-paying and more stable jobs to provide for their families. Vance says that the transplants from the south left behind vital social kinship networks and connections to churches that had provided the moral backbone and interdependent spirit of their original communities. In the north, according to Vance, many of these “hillbillies” felt out of place culturally and, as a result, isolated themselves from the intermediate institutions that would have provided resources and support, such as networks of friends and neighbors, religious communities, civic organizations, and other groups.

Social science research demonstrating the positive impact of faith-based organizations is still in its infancy. Policy experts and social researchers have barely scratched the surface when it comes to how civil society organizations and government can creatively collaborate to best serve the needs of the whole person and transform lives. Still, there is evidence that such soul-shaping institutional engagement could be a game-changer right now to socially, financially and spiritually impoverished individuals, especially many working-class Midwesterners.

Near the end of his second term, President Obama’s Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships’ Advisory Council released a report summarizing its Recommendations to Address Poverty and Inequality. The report echoes the importance of something faith-based organizations know: that solutions must address the soul-needs of a person in addition to the material needs. The report states that government policies and partnerships with neighborhood organizations ought to take such a holistic approach into account:

Government resources must therefore sow the seeds of community-based efforts to heal and unlock communities’ and individuals’ inner assets triggering and sustaining lasting external and internal transformations. We should remember that capital is not just financial; it is social, informational, experiential, spiritual, emotional, natural, and cultural.

In a 2016 New York Times op-ed, The Bad Faith of the White Working Class, Vance writes about the positive social impact of participating in religious organizations. Vance discusses how people who participate in faith communities do better in school, are less likely to engage in racial bias, and are less likely to be involved in criminal activity. But, as Vance notes: “Despite these benefits, church attendance has fallen substantially among the members of the white working class in recent years, just when they need it most.”

Vance goes on to point out that the lack of engagement in religious institutions does not necessarily mean that white working-class Americans have wholesale abandoned their religion. In fact, as Vance points out, 75% identify with the Christian faith. However, “that faith has become deinstitutionalized,” and so the connections and resources provided by churches and other faith-based institutions are largely lost to such believers.

Can efforts to engage working-class Americans in congregations and other faith-based community organizations really make a difference? A 2016 event and accompanying report, “The Halo Effect and the Economic Value of Faith-Based Organizations,” explored such questions. The Brookings Institute and the Program for Research on Religion and Urban Civil Society at the University of Pennsylvania convened a discussion to explore the positive impact of faith-based organizations on their communities. The event also discussed possible approaches to building the capacities of religious organizations as hubs of relational networks and civic participation.

As Brookings notes, panelists discussed the diversity of services and innovations that place-based religious organizations provide their fellow neighbors: “Experts discussed how faith-based organizations can support local jobs and businesses, early childhood education, nonprofit start-ups, and more.” Robert Jaeger, President of Partners for Sacred Places (the organization that released the report) highlighted the generative potential of religious organizations to revitalize and reinvigorate isolated and depressed communities. Jaeger stated: 

“Sacred places support the building of social capital. The local [house of worship] is trusted by parents and families and other key populations, and can provide a natural setting for programs and events that help local residents form new bonds and take action and response to local problems and opportunities.”

What does this mean for members of the working class? For one, it means that the media and political elites are focusing on a group that, many would argue, had long been ignored. The systemic social, economic and spiritual challenges facing working-class Americans in Middle America are palpable and deserve attention as well as compassion from the political establishment and journalists in New York and D.C. But working-class Americans have enormous untapped energies and capacities that deserve more than just long overdue news coverage.  These Americans need to be intentionally engaged by local faith-based organizations: from the neighborhood congregation, to the pregnancy resource center, to the church-run early childhood program and the faith-based community food-bank. Faith-based organizations have what many working-class Americans desperately want and need: a place to connect, to be spiritually nourished, and to feel heard.