State of the Union: A Call to Action for Faith-based Organizations

This article originally appeared in the Institutional Religious Freedom Alliance’s eNews for Faith-Based Organizations, a bi-weekly newsletter that covers key legal and policy developments and for faith-based organizations.

President Trump’s first State of the Union speech, delivered January 30th, has drawn both strong criticism and strong support. Missing from the commentary, however, was the role of civil society institutions–families, churches, neighborhood groups, secular nonprofits–in contributing to the country’s flourishing. There is an opportunity here: faith-based and community-based nonprofits can, and should, use national moments like the State of the Union to emphasize their contributions to a flourishing civil society.

The Role of Faith-Based Organizations in Responding to Natural Disaster

At the outset of his remarks, President Trump reflected on 2017: “We have shared in the heights of victory and the pains of hardship. We endured floods and fires and storms. But through it all, we have seen the beauty of America's soul, and the steel in America's spine.”

Last year saw much of the country ravaged and wrecked by natural disasters, including wildfires, hurricanes and flooding. Yet the most redeeming moments came in the outpouring of responses from churches, synagogues, and faith-based nonprofits. During Hurricane Harvey, the Champions Islamic Center opened its doors during the sacred Eid al-Adha festival to provide shelter to both Muslims and non-Muslims. M.J. Khan, the president of the Islamic Society of Greater Houston, which runs the Champions mosque along with others that provided shelter, told USA today that the people who need shelter “are the number one priority. They will not be disturbed, they will not be displaced, they will not be moved….People who come [to worship], if they have to pray in the parking lot, they’ll pray in the parking lot.”

When wildfires tore through Napa Valley last October, a Santa Rosa synagogue became a place of physical and spiritual refuge, reflecting the very notion of “the beauty of America’s soul,” referenced in the President’s opening comments. As the L.A. Times reported, a synagogue on Bennett Valley Road had 20 or more families lose their homes. Rabbi Stephanie Kramer worked to provide temporary shelter in the synagogue while it was safe, and harnessed the relational capital of the congregation and its families to find out who had extra rooms for people in need. The rabbi also ensured that sacred texts and scrolls were saved after the synagogue itself was ordered to be evacuated. As with the Muslim community in Texas, this Jewish community was celebrating a holy day in the midst of disaster: the holiday, called Sukkhot, was pregnant with spiritual significance in light of the disaster. Nina Agrawal of the LA. Times wrote: “The timing was poignant: The weeklong festival is a harvest holiday in which Jews erect booths outside their homes to remember the dwellings they used when wandering the desert, reminding them of the fragility of shelter.”

The Role of Faith-Based Organizations in Supporting Whole-Person, Family Flourishing

Later in his address, President Trump commented: “In America, we know that faith and family, not government and bureaucracy, are the center of the American life.” There are many Americans who would agree with this statement. Yet in practicality, faith-based and community-based organizations breathe life into these bedrock values. Religious groups and place-based nonprofits are often the vehicle through which the values of faith and family are brought to life. As the Health and Human Services Center for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships homepage states: “without the engagement of secular and faith-based nonprofits, community organizations, neighborhoods and wider communities in general, services will not reach people who need them most.”

Faith-based and secular nonprofits provide networks of support to individuals that open the doors for them to build the relational, financial, spiritual, and material capital to contribute to their communities.

President Trump used several examples of individuals to highlight American heroism by highlighting their commitment to God, family, and country. President Trump recounted the story of a young police officer who encountered a pregnant homeless woman struggling with substance abuse. The officer and his wife “...agreed to adopt. The Holets named their new daughter Hope.” This anecdote presents faith-based organizations with an opportunity to highlight the connection between individual acts of heroism and the varied civil society groups that often make such acts possible. Faith-based and secular nonprofits provide networks of support to individuals that open the doors for them to build the relational, financial, spiritual, and material capital to contribute to their communities.

The inspiring story of the police officer and the adoption presents an opportunity to talk about the benefit of social services organizations involved with drug recovery and adoption services. Hope’s biological mother, the heroin-addicted, homeless pregnant woman in President Trump’s anecdote, would likely turn to sacred sector organizations or secular human services agencies that could address her physical, emotional, and spiritual needs. She may seek an organization such as The Way Homes, a sober-living environment dedicated to “Christ-centered recovery” for “individuals who have committed to a 12-step program with Jesus Christ as our higher power.” Or, she may seek out the support of a community-based secular human services organization, like Humanim. The police officer and his wife who adopted the woman’s child are likely to have counted on the support of a child placement organization dedicated to serving both birth mothers and adoptive parents. The Christian Alliance for Orphans represents over 190 organizations and is dedicated to “inspire and equip Christians to effectively live out the Bible’s call to care for orphans and vulnerable children.”

Faith-based Organizations as Mediating Institutions

NPR’s On Point episode covering the State of the Union focused, in part, on how President Trump honored many individual American heroes. One interviewee, Chris Buskirk, noted, “This is something Ronald Reagan started thirty-five years ago, using people as...real life examples of themes he was trying to develop in his speech.” While this approach gives Americans a tangible human story to embody larger themes, it can also feed a narrative that overemphasizes the exceptional character of the individual while neglecting the support that they likely received from the people and organizations around them. This community support is almost always the product of the formal and informal groups that make up civil society. As a resource from the Frameworks Institute explains, “If the success story is highly episodic, focusing on single events and the  psychology of individuals, then it does little to help the public understand the broader issue, and it can contribute to the thinking that only exceptional individuals can or should be involved in  civic effort.” However, being interdependent on a network of community resources and organizations makes such heroism no less remarkable.

President Trump also discussed the opioid crisis, DACA and immigration, international humanitarian crises, and the need to support working families. There are thousands of faith-based and community-based institutions that speak into these issues everyday, from a variety of perspectives and mission-focus areas. Their contributions are an important component of any positive advancements in our country, and should be credited as such.

Consider the subject of immigration. The Evangelical Immigration Table focuses on the God-given dignity of each human being with respect to the challenging topic of immigration, and works toward finding common ground. The coalition’s website states, “Initiatives to remedy this crisis have led to polarization and name calling in which opponents have misrepresented each other’s positions as open borders and amnesty versus deportations of millions.” The Council for Christian Colleges and Universities (CCCU), representing more than 180 Christian higher education institutions, also serves as an example of a civil society institution that provides unique insight. Their statement on DACA reads:

In order to participate in DACA, they [people participating in DACA] have all been thoroughly vetted, registered with the federal government, undergone background checks, and paid fees in exchange for peace of mind in the form of protection from deportation and work authorization. This greater certainty allowed participants to deepen their involvement with, and contribution to, their communities, including as students in CCCU institutions.

The distinctive voices of faith-based nonprofit organizations are essential is highlighting their impact on key social issues in their communities.

Faith-based Organizations Contribute to a Flourishing Civil Society

It’s clear that faith-based organizations contribute to our nation’s flourishing. Many of these organizations have joined a new initiative called Sacred Sector, which focuses on the unique capacities of faith-based civil society. With support from the Templeton Religion Trust, the Sacred Sector empowers organizations with diverse sacred missions to come together to fully incarnate their faith-based identities in how they advance organizational practices, engage in public policy, and shape public perception.

President Trump, in his concluding remarks, noted, “Americans fill the world with art and music. They push the bounds of science and discovery. And they forever remind us of what we should never forget: The people dreamed this country.” The president’s words capture the innovative fields in which Americans have made contributions to culturally vibrant and flourishing communities. Yet the State of the Union failed to highlight the structures through which much of America’s flourishing has been made possible. It is more often the case that, rather than the efforts of a heroic individual, our nation’s achievements are an outgrowth of the networks and organizations that support individuals to bring innovation to life.  

-Chelsea Langston Bombino is Program Director for Sacred Sector, a new initiative of the Center for Public Justice to empower faith-based organizations to advance their sacred missions in everything they do. Photo courtesy of The White House.