Mediating institutions facing new secular challenges


The ability of “mediating institutions,” particularly faith-based groups, to deliver social services to the public has fallen on hard times due to, among other factors, religious institutions’ declining influence in American society, according to public policy analysts speaking at a recent conference in Washington, DC. The conference, co-sponsored by the Ethics and Public Policy Center (EPPC) and the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) and attended online by RW, commemorated and assessed the 1977 book, To Empower People, by sociologist Peter Berger and Lutheran pastor and theologian Richard John Neuhaus. Considered a classic text on the role of mediating institutions, the book adapted ideas from Alexis de Tocqueville and Catholic teachings on subsidiarity to argue that local institutions like congregations, neighborhoods, families, and voluntary organizations were in the best position to provide social services to Americans. Some critics saw the initiative as largely conservative, trying to bypass big government and its bureaucracy, but speakers at the conference noted that the book was addressed to the Democratic administration of Jimmy Carter and that, at the time, both Berger and Neuhaus were self-identified liberals. To Empower People either presaged or influenced George H.W. Bush’s theme of volunteering and his “thousand points of light,” the communitarian movement and Robert Putnam’s book Bowling Alone, Bill Clinton’s welfare reforms, and George W. Bush’s “Charitable Choice” program.

But since then, the loss of religious ties through non-affiliation and diminishing social capital, as well as the longer reach of government restrictions on congregations, have raised the question of how organized religion can serve as a mediating institution when it has less respect among many Americans. This is especially the case with younger Americans, as growing numbers choose to opt out of both religious and family life, with polls showing a fairly large percentage no longer seeing religion as a force for good. So even if government were rolled back away from the local level, “there may not be the drive or energies” for groups to deliver social services as they once might have, said Catherine Pakaluk of Catholic University of America. AEI pollster Karlyn Bowman said, however, that it was important not to exaggerate the loss of civic life and its mediating role in society. She cited surveys of neighborhood involvement and volunteerism from the American Community Survey that found a high rate of civic involvement. Some neighborhoods were found to retain religious connections, such as those made up of Latter-day Saints, “evangelical hubs,” and African American communities. Sixty percent of respondents said their neighborhoods were going in the right direction, and the same proportion would not choose to relocate; and 3 in 10 reported volunteering in a religious or non-religious group.

Several speakers sought to locate mediating institutions relevant to American society today, and many of them seemed to be in the educational sphere. Nathaniel Peters of the Morningside Institute in New York cited the growth of classical schools, which are often connected to churches or have strong religious support, charter schools, para-academic organizations, Christian study centers at universities, and other independent organizations as filling the gap in mediating institutions. Ryan Anderson of the EPPC said that concerns about religious liberty have brought together new coalitions of parents and others that could serve a mediating role against government overreach. Scott Winship of AEI said that even as the “federal government has made it difficult for congregations to serve people through new restrictions and regulations,” new kinds of social institutions have emerged as mediating institutions, such as THREAD, which helps troubled students in Baltimore. Pakaluk, who recently authored, Hannah’s Children, a book about women choosing to have large families, said that this “five percent” of families and the ways in which they are embedded in “living religious communities” play key mediating roles, as do homeschooling and “micro schools” (which combine homeschooling with traditional schools). But she added that “mediating institutions have to develop naturally. They’re not planned in board meetings.”