Threat From the South: Is American Religion Bad News for Canadian Social Welfare?

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Implications for the Welfare State

Whether it will be the result of pressure to reduce the financial responsibility of governments or to rebuild the capacity of other social institutions, it seems clear that the welfare state of the twenty-first century will not look like the state-dominated versions of the twentieth century. While some may lament the passing of the government-dominant welfare state (Johnson, 1987), the most compelling and convincing analyses of the future of the welfare state do not lie in attempts to recapture the twentieth century model. Whatever the motives, it seems that the “third sector” will have an increased role in providing social welfare in the future.

But, does this necessarily mean that religion must be given a role too? On this question, the observation of one civil society analyst is instructive:

Is it possible to bring to life proclaimed third sector values such as solidarity, compassion, responsible behavior, refusal of violence and oppression without seeking strategic alliances with the major world religions – Buddhism, Christianity, Confucianism, Hinduism, Islam, and Judaism? In the pursuit of a more just society, the sector represented by organized religion, which I call the fourth sector, cannot be overlooked in any strategic design for societal transformation (Verhagen, 1997, p. 265).

Verhagen is not alone in recognizing the crucial role of religion in the social fabric of twenty-first century life. Those who study religion as a sociological phenomenon increasingly recognize that, contrary to the predictions of nineteenth century rational modernists, religion is not simply a vestige of a less civilized era, but is fundamental to lived human experience (Bane, Coffin & Theimann, 2000; Cipriani, 2000; Ellwood, 1992). Even if one doubts the significance of religion for oneself, it would be simplistic to minimize the role of organized religion in the structures of social welfare for tomorrow, particularly given the increasing attention to the third sector.

Assuming, then, that religion does have a legitimate role to play, what does this mean for the welfare state? First, it seems important to disentangle the dual motivations to reduce the state’s role and to enhance the role of religion. The experience in the US indicates that when the motivation is narrowly focused on getting government out of the business of social welfare provision, the third sector can find itself potentially prostituted and co-opted. The commitment to public responsibility for social welfare and the commitment to religious diversity must be independent of one another. It seems neither viable nor just to make one a condition for the other.

Second, commitment to religious involvement in social provision must be deep enough to respect smaller minority groups who differ greatly from more established religious communities. Failure to do so will result in violations of both the “establishment” and the “free expression” principles. On this point, Beyer (2003) makes this sobering observation:

While most countries in the world today officially declare that their citizens enjoy freedom of religion, none of them actually allows the unfettered exercise of that freedom. In fact, all of them seek overtly to control and to restrict that freedom, reinforcing in the process the local hegemony of one religion, a small set of religions, or even a formally atheistic or other national ideology (p. 333; emphasis original).

If certain dominant or influential religious groups consistently appear to benefit from government funding or other policies to the exclusion of smaller groups, then, as argued in the American context, the practical application of the policy de facto favours (or “establishes”) certain groups over others (Minow, 2000). Indeed, in the USA, the term “faith-based” is somewhat misleading in that the primary efforts have been directed to expanding the role of selected Christian groups over other religious groups (Daly, 2005; Wagner, 2000). Similarly, government partnerships with religious organizations must be monitored carefully to prevent the kind of gross violations of minority groups’ religious expression demonstrated in the Canadian residential schools fiasco.

Finally, room must be given for persons to opt out of explicit religious expression or activity. Whether this choice is called secular, neutral, public, or something else matters less than that there is freedom on the part of individuals, groups, and communities to live according to their own beliefs. The Canadian approach, so far, seems to assume that all public activity is secular and therefore neutral (Chaplin, 2000). While this approach certainly protects those who choose to be free from organized religion, it does so at the cost of violating both the establishment principle, by extending state support to a secular institutions over other equally legitimate (but religious) institutions, and the free religious expression principle, by forcing religious adherents to privatize their faith as a condition of public participation (Caputo, 2005; Chaplin, 2000).

Implications for Social Workers
How should the social work profession in Canada respond to these challenges? Should we heed the warnings of some American colleagues, who have observed that social work cannot afford to ignore the potential of religion and must be proactive in facilitating mutually beneficial partnerships between government, social work, and religion (Cnaan, 1999; Wineburg, 2001)? Or, should we continue to insist on an arms-length relationship with religion?


As Ailsa Watkinson (2004) has recently argued, the increasing role of religion presents serious challenges for social work ethics and for human rights. The Canadian Social Work Code of Ethics, the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and the UN Declaration of Human Rights protect religious freedom and freedom of beliefs and values, but also protect individuals and groups from oppression at the hands of religious fundamentalists. This poses a particular challenge when different groups identified under various codes disagree over fundamental values or are pitted against each other, such as some religious groups versus some persons who are gay, lesbian, bisexual or trans-gendered (Hodge, 2004b; Vanderwoerd, 2002b). This is when a profession’s and a country’s commitment to religious freedom is strained and there is tension between the obligations to protect and uphold the rights of members of conflicting groups (McLachlin, 2004). Frederic Reamer (1999) recognizes that codes of ethics do not remove the necessity to weigh and adjudicate between claims of competing groups. As a profession, we need to recognize that the code of ethics does not prescribe specific policy or practice responses, and that there are genuine differences of opinion within our ranks regarding how best to realize our profession’s values.

Anti-oppressive practice.

Given that social work has always had an explicit – if at times disputed – intent to seek justice for those who are marginalized, it seems to be the ideal profession to facilitate a dialogue between competing claims (Hodge, 2003a), and to be cognizant of how its own and others’ systems of discourse negate or marginalize others (Hodge, 2004b; Pierce, 2004). Anti-oppressive practice includes at least that social workers must remain vigilant about the ways in which various groups and populations are marginalized or oppressed (Carniol, 2005; Finn & Jacobson, 2003). Postmodern studies of discourse have convincingly demonstrated that dominant groups all too frequently use their system of values and beliefs as a way to “totalize” or oppress other groups with different belief systems (Middleton & Walsh, 1996). There is evidence that social work, as a profession situated within the professional knowledge class, shows signs of losing its ability to understand and be responsive to persons or groups who hold value systems that counter its own claims (Hodge, 2003c), and thus, through its own discourse, inadvertently becomes an instrument of oppression itself (Hodge, 2002; Pierce, 2004).

Cultural competency.

Social workers and social work education, therefore, must continue to include spirituality and religion as areas to develop cultural competency (Baskin, 2002; Hodge, 2005c). For example, teaching cultural competency in social work education could be expanded to include various specific religious and spiritual groups such as evangelical Christians (Hodge, 2004a), Aboriginal peoples (Baskin, 2002; Mawhiney, 2001), Muslims (Barise, 2005; Hodge, 2005b); and Hindus (Hodge, 2004c). Culturally competent social workers must be aware of their own religious and spiritual identities and be able to respect the spiritual and religious beliefs and backgrounds of client groups with which they work. Our code of ethic states that “the culture of individuals, families, groups, communities and nations has to be respected without prejudice” (Canadian Association of Social Workers, 1994). Inasmuch as spirituality and religion constitute not only systems of beliefs and values, but also unique cultural practices, social workers must develop not only sensitivity and tolerance for clients’ religions, but also competency in spiritual and religious assessing and intervention (Caputo, 2005; Hodge, 2003b, 2005a).

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