A frequent theme in Philanthropy is that charities in the past often acted more effectively than today’s charities in striving to improve the lot of the poor. In particular, it is argued, those who led charities in bygone days understood that it wasn’t enough to ease the material suffering of the poor. Instead it was also necessary to discourage dependency and promote self-reliance.
For that reason, yesterday’s philanthropists generally perceived that it was insufficient (and in some cases actually inadvisable) to bestow alms upon the poor. They knew they must also encourage the poor to practice behaviors—such as seeking and holding jobs, obeying the law, avoiding addictions—that would facilitate their self-reliance.
We can learn much from the practices of philanthropies of long ago. And it is to the credit of America’s public-policy community—as well as its philanthropists—that there is currently much more interest in promoting the self-reliance of the poor than there was a generation ago.
At the same time, it is also important to realize that while today’s philanthropic efforts often share the goals of past efforts, their means of achieving them are somewhat different. In fact, one can even argue that the means currently employed by charities may in some ways be more effective than those of yesterday. Indeed, these may be the “good new days” of philanthropy, in which personal responsibility can be promoted more effectively than it was in the past.
It is true that many charitable efforts today replicate past undertakings, in ways that would have seemed wholly implausible just a generation earlier. For example, attempts to improve the condition of the poor by religiously-motivated appeals to virtue—analogous to nineteenth-century undertakings by many clergymen who doubled as urban missionaries—were dismissed as laughably anachronistic in the recent past.
In contrast, today many view them as the last, best hope of regeneration in the more distressed parts of the inner city. Thus, according to Joe Klein, an unidentified White House aide to President Clinton remarked in 1997 that “the hot social-policy topic these days” is the power of religious institutions to deal with the poor, a reflection of the fact that “everything else has failed.”
Similarly, a Newsweek correspondent recently noted that “the hottest new topic in crime fighting” is “the power of religion”:
The only way to rescue kids from the seductions of the drug and gang cultures is with another, more powerful set of values: a substitute family for young people who almost never have two parents, and may not even have one, at home. And the only institution with the spiritual message and the physical presence to offer those traditional values . . . is the church.
In crucial respects, though, today’s churches and, more broadly, today’s proponents of moral regeneration among the poor, differ from their nineteenth-century counterparts—in ways that may actually enhance the prospects for the success of their efforts. When contrasted with nineteenth-century practice, the efforts of today’s urban missionaries have been both democratized and (to coin an ugly word for a lovely thing) ecumenicized. Both of these changes are likely to aid contemporary efforts to uplift the poor.
Fleeting Encounters in the Slums
Despite their many virtues, a prominent shortcoming dogged many nineteenth-century efforts to promote the personal responsibility of the poor. By and large, the efforts were spearheaded by elites striving to inculcate virtue among the masses. The great theorists and practitioners of nineteenth-century charitable efforts to encourage self-reliance were undeniably products of the American social elite—from Joseph Tuckerman, a Boston clergyman in the 1820s, through Josephine Shaw Lowell, the most important figure in New York’s Charity Organization Society in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. As a result, efforts to make the poor self-reliant could generally succeed only by crossing an enormous social divide.
One need not dismiss these efforts as illegitimate attempts at social control of the masses to acknowledge that privileged reformers would occasionally have found it hard to address the urban poor persuasively. Thus the historian Paul Boyer, who is by no means altogether opposed to such efforts, usefully lays out the problem facing yesterday’s elite philanthropists:
Here are “we,” striving valiantly to uphold the moral order; over there the sinister, faceless “they” gnaw away at its foundations . . . . The missionary society visitor who vanished to another part of the city after a fleeting encounter in the slums was patently not a neighbor motivated by personal interest in a specific family but an emissary from a different social class impelled by more abstract concerns.
Inevitably, then, even with the best of intentions, the poor who interacted with elite philanthropists must have wondered: Since their lives are so different from ours, and their understanding of our lives is limited, how can their moral prescriptions for us be valid?
Perceiving the realities of the gulf separating them from the poor, socially privileged philanthropists understood that it would have been false to claim kinship with the poor. Thus Lowell was praised after her death by a colleague for what she did not do in relating to the poor: “She did not attempt to lay aside the advantages of the position that belonged to her; she did not try to transport herself into their conditions; there was nothing unreal or unnatural in her or her work.”
Of course, it is reasonable to suppose that leaders who did not require “transportation” into the conditions of the poor would have been better able to promote personal responsibility among the poor. Those who once lived in poverty have relationships with the poor that accordingly are more “real” and “natural.” In fact, some in the nineteenth century well understood the benefits to be derived from sharing the background of those who could benefit from reformation. Consider, for instance, this 1886 statement by a Hartford minister named John Kimball: if God “wants to reach down amid the muck and filth and coarseness and brutality of the lowest strata of society . . . he does not send [a Ralph Waldo] Emerson. . . but a redeemed rum-seller or a converted pugilist to do it.”
Democratizing Moral Reform
In contrast with past efforts to promote personal responsibility, it is striking how frequently contemporary efforts are undertaken precisely by converted criminals or redeemed drug addicts (if not rum-sellers). It is no longer elites who attempt to uplift the downtrodden; for the most part it is the formerly downtrodden, having reformed themselves, who now attempt to reform others. The promotion of self-reliance has always been “for the people,” but today it is almost invariably “of the people” and “by the people” as well. In short, the attempt to encourage personal responsibility has been democratized.
Its democratization is evident, for example, in Robert L. Woodson Sr.’s discussion of faith-based efforts at reviving inner cities. In his words, many “community healers have come out of our prisons. They have experienced what it is to live in drug-infested, crime-ridden neighborhoods. Many have themselves fallen but have been able to recover through their faith in God.” Unlike the elite moral reformers of the nineteenth century, then, they have the advantage of sharing “the same ‘zip code’ as the people they serve. They have a firsthand knowledge of the problems they live with, and they have a personal stake in the success of their solutions.”
Many individual examples support Woodson’s generalization. One of today’s most prominent urban missionaries is the Reverend Eugene Rivers, a black Pentecostal who ministers to at-risk youth in the impoverished Boston neighborhood of Dorchester. Rivers’s Philadelphia upbringing was hardly typical of ghetto youths: his parents were black nationalists and intellectuals. But his father left his mother when Rivers was three; Rivers joined a street gang at age twelve; he fathered a child out of wedlock; and at one point he created three identities for himself so as to collect welfare checks in Philadelphia, New York, and New Haven.
Rivers’s background thus gives him (in a Newsweek formulation) a certain “street edge” that presumably makes it somewhat easier for him to relate to at-risk youth than it was for his Boston predecessor of 170 years ago, Joseph Tuckerman. The benefits of a democratic capacity to interact easily and comfortably with those who are to be uplifted are also evident in the advice of a second prominent contemporary urban missionary, Freddie Garcia. In his view, urban missionaries must have warm personalities, because those who seem to have been “baptized in lemon juice” are sure to fail.
Another reformed reformer is Juan Rivera, whom Garcia converted. Rivera now works to rehabilitate drug addicts and alcoholics at Victory Fellowship in San Antonio, Texas. But in his former life he was an addict and burglar, and two of his siblings died violent deaths. Again, one suspects that his interactions with substance abusers are more natural, and more likely to be effective, than were those of yesterday’s urban missionaries who were products of the social elite.
A Tide of Interdenominational Tolerance?
Today’s urban missions are also more ecumenical than they were in the past, which probably increases their effectiveness in various ways. Most notably, it is now easier to preach personal responsibility across denominational lines than it was a century ago. For all that racial divides may sometimes complicate efforts to encourage personal responsibility among today’s poor, ecumenicism has also simplified these efforts. In particular, it is significant that the Protestant-Catholic divide, so problematic a century ago, has dwindled considerably.
Because religious tolerance has flourished, Americans are now much less likely to believe that being a Catholic (or a Protestant, or a Jew) is a sign of moral failing. As a result, they are more open to moral arguments espoused by people of differing faiths. University of Virginia sociologist James Davison Hunter, who popularized the notion of a “culture war” dividing contemporary Americans, calls attention to this rise of religious tolerance. As he puts it, “The distinctions that long divided Americans—those between Protestants, Catholics, and Jews—[are now] virtually irrelevant.” In Hunter’s arresting formulation, “The practical effects of the birth of Christianity and the Reformation have, at least in the U.S. context, become both politically and culturally defunct.”
This tide of interdenominational tolerance in all likelihood facilitates the promotion of personal responsibility among the poor. Specifically, if in the past Catholics tended to ignore the moral preachings of Protestants but today are more likely to be open to Protestant messages (and vice versa), that change increases the likelihood of moral conversions that often alter people’s lives for the better.
The evidence here is necessarily anecdotal, but it is nonetheless suggestive. Eugene Rivers, it is interesting to note, is the child of a Pentecostal mother and a Black Muslim father. (A friend describes Rivers as “a perfect Muslim Pentecostal.”) Of greater importance is that his work, like that of many other inner-city Protestant preachers, is based on interfaith alliances. As a Newsweek reporter explains, “In urban areas like Boston, Newark and Philadelphia clergy are learning to reach across denominational lines and tap each other’s strengths.” Thus Rivers works closely with Boston’s Roman Catholic Cardinal Bernard Law, whom Rivers describes as his “patrone.”
The cooperation between the black Pentecostal preacher and the Cardinal is possible because of a moral consensus that unites them—a consensus that would have been far more difficult to achieve a century ago when interdenominational hostility was still in full force. Thus, Law contends that Rivers espouses “a pro-poor, pro-family, pro-life platform that I can enthusiastically support.” For his part, Rivers and other black Protestant clergy have been influenced by Catholic social teachings, which offer “a body of thought that fits the problems of the inner city into a coherent Christian perspective.” Social Catholicism appeals to them because it offers an alternative to the individualism of America’s secular left and right. Society is understood not as a social contract between isolated individuals, but as an interdependent organism in which the rights of individuals must be balanced against their duties to civil society and state.
Thus, the religion preached by Rivers is eclectic and ecumenical in important respects. Significantly, he also preaches it pragmatically, in the sense that for Rivers it is clearly as much a means to a moral end as an end in itself. Thus Rivers has somewhat deemphasized doctrinal preaching, inasmuch as its capacity to effect the moral conversion of youths is sometimes limited. As Newsweek puts it, “In the early days, Rivers pushed religion harder on the kids, but found that it intimidated—and turned off—many of them. So now he keeps preaching to a minimum.”
The Victory Fellowship in which Freddie Garcia and Juan Rivera serve offers a second indication of the ecumenicism of contemporary moral reform. Garcia’s and Rivera’s Protestantism seems to pose no significant obstacle to their work with a largely Catholic population.
The seeming irrelevance of particular religious denominations sharply differentiates the terrain on which personal responsibility is currently preached from the terrain of the nineteenth century. The specific characteristics of different denominations are far less important now than they were then, when doctrinal disputes loomed much larger. In practice, then, reformers have a wider potential audience than they did in the past.
Thus, whereas Protestant reformers in the past had great difficulty in preaching to Catholics, Woodson notes that today’s reformers “do not target their services exclusively to individuals of any particular race or background,” so that their offerings “are open to all comers.” In short, the argument for personal responsibility is perhaps more universally audible than in the past. Because they are less caught up in the friction between different denominations, today’s urban missionaries can more reasonably hope to be able to reach people of many different denominations or no denomination at all.
None of this is to deny the importance and the relevance of the example set by the remarkably thoughtful philanthropists of the past. On the other hand, it is also worth recalling that if we can still learn from them, the best of today’s philanthropists would probably have something to teach them as well. We should certainly strive to recover the insights that characterized the philanthropists of America’s good old days; but we should do so while understanding that the present may well turn out to be philanthropy’s good new days.
Perhaps the great efforts of the past can be matched and even exceeded. Prior to 1998, few would have thought that Mark McGwire could surpass Babe Ruth and Roger Maris—yet he did. Tuckerman, Lowell, and others can justifiably be considered philanthropy’s home-run kings of the past. While philanthropists today should unquestionably strive to learn from their example, they should also recognize their advantages and take a page from McGwire’s book by attempting to outdo them in the future.
Joel Schwartz is a contributing editor to Philanthropy. His book, Fighting Poverty With Virtue: Moral Reform and America’s Urban Poor, 1825-2000, will be published in the fall of 2000 by Indiana University Press.