Religious belief and expression are common and important components in most cultures and nations in the world, In the United States religious identification and affiliation have been traditional staples of society, and there has been an increase in the importance of spirituality and religious participation in Americans' lives (Bullis, 1996). Statistics indicate that most U.S. citizens believe in a God, or higher power, and the majority find that religious involvement improves the quality of their lives (Sheridan, Bulls, Adcock, Berlin, & Miller, 1992). According to the 1998 Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches, 55 U.S. church denominations reported a total membership of 50,047,599 people and total contributions of $24,170,133,464 (Lindner, 1998). These statistics indicate increases over earlier years.
Given the importance that religious institutions and beliefs have in U.S. society, it could be assumed that it has been a much-focused-on area for social work education and research. Moreover, the initial forms of organized social work in the United States had their beginnings in churches and religious institutions (Ehrenreich, 1985; Leiby, 1978; Popple & Leighninger, 1996; Scheurell, 1987), and expression of religious belief is an often-cited reason that many social workers choose to enter the field (DuBois & Miley, 1996; Popple & Leighninger). Until recently, however, the social work profession gave surprisingly little to no attention to the effect of religion and spirituality on clients and professional practice (Joseph, 1988; Loewenberg, 1988).
New interest in religion and social work practice is emerging. Recently, there have been establishments of religiously based social work organizations, a higher publication rate of religiously focused articles, an emergence of sectarian academic social work journals, the inclusion of religious issues in social work education, and the founding of sectarian undergraduate and graduate social work programs (Popple & Leighninger, 1996).
The social work profession's recent interest in religious issues is understandable given the renewed importance that religion has had in U.S. society and its enhanced role in social work education and professional development. However, an even more important reason for the profession s interest in examining the relationship between religion and social work may be related to the large and increasing role of sectarian organizations in providing social welfare services.
In one of the few empirical studies of sectarian social service agencies, Netting (1986) found in a 1985 survey that approximately 14,000 agencies had affiliations with religious organizations in the United States. Comparatively, a 1955 National Council of Churches study concluded that only 2,783 agencies were religiously affiliated (cited in Ellor, Netting, & Thibault, 1999). The trend for these agencies is greater reliance on government funds and less on voluntary contributions and church monies (Netting, 1982). Moreover, government has given up incrementally larger shares of responsibility for social services provision. Churches are increasingly assigned that responsibility (Popple & Leighninger, 1996). Indicative of this trend, Indianapolis Mayor Stephen Goldsmith, chief domestic policy coordinator for the George W. Bush presidential campaign, suggested that many types of social welfare services provided by the government should be opened to competitive bidding from private charities and religious organiz ations (Elsner, 1999).
Given this substantial and changing role that sectarian agencies now have in providing social welfare services, it behooves the social work profession to have a better understanding of the historical, structural, philosophical, and value bases of these organizations. The social work profession needs to explore issues related to how services and clinical practices are approached and affected (for example, are sectarian agencies more accountable for services to churches or to government entities? …