Religion, Civil Society, and Social
Provision in the U.S.
The genius of U.S. voluntary membership federations was to make local and national commitments complement rather than oppose one another. When today's conservatives advocate local voluntarism apart from, or in opposition to, government, they advocate a break with the past, not a return to it.
GROUPS RALLY AND PARTICIPANTS PLEDGE to remake their lives. Older associations and religious denominations are besieged, while new groups multiply and flourish. Organizers issue clarion calls for volunteers to help individuals, embody fellowship, and pursue national salvation.
Is this the United States of the 1990s?--the America of the Million Man March, movements of church and community people to "Stand for Children," of stadium rallies for Promise Keepers; the America of proliferating evangelical and Pentecostal churches, the "thousand points of light," and the national Volunteerism Summit? Or is it instead the nineteenth-century United States, with its evangelical camps, crusades for temperance and against slavery, its Chautauqua meetings and wildfire foundings of Methodist and Baptist congregations, its waves of poor relief organized by benevolent and charitable societies?
Just posing this question reminds us that America has experienced repeated crusades combining quests for community and for individual and societal salvation. Again and again, established religious denominations have been overtaken by religious renewals; and Americans recurrently call for voluntary efforts to reform persons and society. Religious people, religious ideals, and religious ties figure prominently in American social movements and in the making and implementation of the nation's social-welfare policies.
But how, exactly? The challenge is to comprehend the full set of ways religion and religious folks have mattered in American democracy and social provision. This is not easy at a time when very tendentious and misleading claims