People of the Cross

“Largely poor, uneducated and easy to command.” That description of Christian Coalition members, in a 1993 front-page Washington Post “news analysis,” became an infamous example of elite and journalistic bias against Christianity. The Post quickly apologized, but its ill-chosen words reflect the inner thoughts and assumptions of the “cultured despisers of Christianity.”

Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger pithily expressed another stereotype: Christianity as woman-hate: “If Christianity turned the clock of general progress back a thousand years, it turned back the clock two thousand years for woman.”

Hispanic lesbian activist Cherrie Moraga claimed, “Everything misogynist I learned as a child, I learned from the Catholic Church.”

Christians, and religious believers more generally, are frequently caricatured as miserable, repressed, self-loathing, misogynist and uneducated. Movies like Oscar-nominee Chocolat imply that rejection of religious authority is the road to personal happiness and fulfillment.

Now comes a new study from the University of Pennsylvania's Center for Research on Religion and Urban Civil Society that puts into sociological jargon what most Christians already know: Religion generally brings hope, not despair; it is not a sickness; it is not a source of contempt for women.

Faith-Based Health

“Objective Hope” is a two-part report. The second part is concerned with the dearth of literature studying the effectiveness of faith-based charitable organizations. With President George W. Bush's call for a bigger role for such charities and a closer partnership between the charities and government agencies, everyone wanted to know whether religious charities actually did more to help poor people and transform lives than secular nonprofits or government anti-poverty programs. Unfortunately, the social sciences have tended to downplay the role of religion in people's lives, and there has not been enough research on faith-based charities to allow us to draw any firm conclusions.

The authors of the new study point out that the research that has been done shows promise; religious charities, in general, do show positive results. But we just don't know enough yet to say that social science has proved that religious charities do better than the alternatives. Very few studies have even attempted to distinguish between charities that are run by religious organizations but do not emphasize faith and personal transformation, and charities that do rely heavily on religious commitment and evangelization.

Another study by the same research center found that a majority of “faith-based” welfare-to-work programs actually “do not make explicit religious messages a central feature of their work.”

The lack of research on faith-based charities may well be a product of a more general reluctance to acknowledge religion's importance in changing people's lives. However, the first part of the “Objective Hope” report should pique researchers' interests. It's the first half of the study that makes the bold claims, detailing the many ways in which religious commitment improves health, education and personal behavior.

The researchers conducted a comprehensive review of 669 studies on the relationship between religious belief and personal well-being; their report makes some eye-opening claims. Among them: People who believe in God, attend worship services regularly and show other signs of religious devotion are less likely to abuse drugs or alcohol. They are less likely to suffer from depression and hypertension. They live longer, are less likely to have children out of wedlock and have lower suicide rates. Even in neighborhoods without strong social pressures to do the right thing, religious believers are responsible for less promiscuity, less delinquency and less criminal behavior. (Most of these studies took place among Christians, but the report does not distinguish between Christianity and other religions.)

Religious people have more hope. They have larger support networks and more social relationships. Religious commitment is correlated with higher self-esteem. (The report notes, “Most would agree that contemporary American culture places too much significance on physical appearance and the idea that one's esteem is bolstered by their looks. … Religion provides a basis for self-esteem that is not dependent upon individual accomplishments, relationships with others or talent.”)

Contrary to what the Post's news analysts would have you believe, recent studies have shown that people who become involved in religious activities tend to improve their educations. And if you think religious belief promotes woman-hating, it might startle you to learn that, although little research has yet been done in this area, several recent studies have found that religious families and individual religious men were less likely to commit domestic violence.

This sounds great — and it is good news. But Christians should be wary of some of the possible interpretations of these studies. Our faith is not judged by the criteria of social science; according to these surveys, St. Thérèse of Lisieux would be considered “unhealthy” and St. John Vianney would be “uneducated.” One can only imagine what a sociologist would make of St. Catherine of Siena. Yet, in fact, these people are models of Christian sanctity.

Sanctified — or Silly?

Similarly, Christians must always find a home in our churches and our hearts for delinquents, drug abusers, promiscuous men and women, and others who don't show “pro-social behaviors.” Too often, such people avoid Christian churches because they are afraid they'll be condemned and rejected. We need to remember who Christ's companions were — tax collectors, prostitutes and other pariahs. We need to remember the biographies of many of our saints — St. Bernard of Corleone, a deadly swordsman before he found Christ; St. Afra, a repentant prostitute who was martyred for her faith; St. Augustine, watching in bloody-minded fascination as a gladiator slaughtered his opponent. And we need to remember that people trying to turn their lives around often find themselves slipping back into old behaviors; that doesn't mean they're not “really Christian.” They're just really sinners. Like everyone.

A view of Christianity as a faith for “the good people” is exactly contrary to Christ's words: “They that are whole have no need of the physician, but they that are sick: I came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance” (Mark 2:17).

Yet the study does prove that the cultured despisers are simply wrong. Christianity is not the faith of weaklings, a “slave mentality” or a misogynist plot; its ceaseless call to repentance and forgiveness does not excuse immoral or criminal behavior.

We should have known this all along — just look at the Christian heroes. The faith that inspires Harry Wu to risk his life returning again and again to China's gulag-like laogai prisons, John Henry Newman to pour out his life in scholarly and pastoral service, Mother Teresa to care for God's poor, and Father Mychal Judge to give his life administering the sacraments at the World Trade Center has never fit the stereotypes of the Washington Post piece.

It's good that the new report calls for more research, especially research on the effects of faith-based charities. Let the social scientists get out their microscopes and magnifying glasses. But we don't need to wait for them to proclaim that Jesus Christ heals broken lives. That's not their job as data-sifters; it's our job as apostles.

Former Register staff writer Eve Tushnet writes from Washington, D.C.

Editor's Note: Objective Hope: Assessing the Effectiveness of Faith-Based Organizations is posted on the Internet at