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

Partnering with informal networks

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Partnering with informal networks.

It is sometimes difficult to remind ourselves that we as social workers simply cannot, or should not, offer all of what clients need or want. There is ample evidence that informal ways of helping, such as self-help groups, neighbourhood and community associations, long-term friendships, and a host of other informal activities also provide substantial – and sometimes better – help than professionals (Cameron & Vanderwoerd, 1997; Cossom, 2001; McKnight, 1995). Religious and spiritual groups form a substantial subset of those informal networks, and social workers cannot afford to ignore such avenues of helping. Trends towards increasing roles for religion in social welfare give us the opportunity to build the capacities of multiple social networks to address pressing social needs (Cnaan, 1999; Wineburg, 2001).

Macro-practice and social change.

The vast majority of social service activities carried out by religious organizations and churches under the faith-based initiatives in the US have been focused on personal relationships between religious persons and clients (Sider & Unruh, 2004). This seems ironic given that some of the most pointed critiques and protests against social, racial, and economic injustice have come from faith groups (Wallis, 2005). Social workers must, therefore, be part of efforts to protect religious groups from being co-opted as handmaidens to government’s purposes (Vanderwoerd, 2004). The current initiatives in the USA appear to cast social problems as primarily a failure of individual responsibility, and therefore marshal the “armies of compassion” to correct and rebuke clients much as the friendly visitors and workers did in the Charity Organization Societies and Sunday School movements of the 19th century. Social work is one of the few professions which explicitly recognizes structural and systemic origins of social problems, and which specifically cultivates skills in social change and social mobilization. As a profession, we cannot afford to stand aside and allow faith groups to become transformed from prophetic critics of injustice (Bruegemann, 2001; Wallis, 2005) to agents of government. Rather, it seems that our profession is ideally suited to partner with religious groups in standing up for the disadvantaged (Cnaan & Boddie, 2002). Indeed, an oft-neglected part of our profession’s history on both sides of the border is how social workers have acted as and with people of faith to challenge oppression (Christie & Gauvreau, 1996; Marty, 1980; Maurutto, 2003). A good example of this is the role of indigenous peoples who have cultivated a “spirituality of resistance” to challenge injustice and oppression. Baskin (2002) notes that social work is especially suited for partnering with Aboriginal peoples and harnessing the anti-oppressive power of spirituality because of social work’s focus on the structural origins of social problems.


The pioneers and architects of the twentieth century welfare state might be horrified to see the edifices of social welfare provision dismantled. Defenders of the traditional welfare state view this dismantling as regressive and backward. Another way to view this change, however, is that nation-wide systems of collective welfare provided important foundations upon which to develop more responsive, inclusive, sustainable, and participatory approaches to social welfare provision. Certainly, recent attention to civil society and the third sector have demonstrated both the limitations of state-driven models and the importance of contributions from other social groups and institutions.

Can or should organized religion be part of these new visions, and if so, how should religious organizations and governments relate to one another? While Canadians may be wary of the increasing role of organized religion in public welfare provision – and point to compelling historical atrocities to substantiate their caution – there has been increasing attention to the role of religion in public life in Canada (Farrow, 2004; Lefebvre, 2005; Lyon & Van Die, 2000). In this vein, Verhagen (1997) issues a persuasive challenge to find ways to admit a positive role for religion in social welfare:

The civil society agenda demands concerted action at community, national, and international levels to solve global issues. Can this agenda materialize if citizens themselves are not filled with an irrational faith, belief, and hope; a spiritual vision which recognizes that poverty and injustice can be overcome; a belief that conflicts can be prevented and peace will prevail; a recognition that each person is unique and deserves respect for his/her own sake and which sees each human being as belonging to a wider, interdependent universe? Who will feed that irrational optimism and spirituality at the personal, community and higher levels? In other words, can the aspirations of a value-driven, civil society movement be realized without due recognition of religious inspiration and motivation as underlying forces? (p. 266)

Chief Justice McLachlin (2004) reminds us that proactive protection of religious (and other) diversity is clearly necessary in our multiethnic, pluralistic societies. However, pluralism cannot be reduced to individual differences that justify the retreat of the state from its responsibility for collective well-being. Instead, providing social welfare will require a delicate balancing of multiple and mutual responsibilities between government and other social institutions, including faith-based ones. Furthermore, the commitment to diversity and to religious freedoms must protect the smallest and most vulnerable groups from exploitation at the hands of dominant groups, and it must also allow citizens and groups to participate in public life with or without explicit adherence to formal religious doctrine and membership in religious organizations. The challenge for the social work profession is to limit the threats from religion while also harnessing the zeal of the myriad religious groups to seek the welfare of all.

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