Frank Adloff is a professor of sociology at the University of Hamburg. Adloff is the director of the Humanities Centre for Advanced Studies “Futures of Sustainability” program. His research focuses on gift giving, conviviality, culture, and social transformations. His publications include Gifts of Cooperation: Mauss and Pragmatism (Routledge, 2016).
The coronavirus has—at least from the perspective of a transatlantic observer—plunged the United States into a deep social crisis. We can see, for example, how the health system is grossly overburdened, how people became unemployed in the first few weeks of the confinements, and what the effects are if there is no generally accessible and mandatory health insurance. These long-standing problems of the American welfare state have now become very clearly visible and show how vulnerable a whole society becomes if the state does not take sufficient precautionary measures. In this way, it becomes clear that not all groups are equally exposed to the crisis: The poor are harder hit than the rich, African-Americans harder than white people. Uninsured people and those who are currently unemployed are particularly hard hit. What is missing is a universalist safety net.
But what role do religious communities play in this social constellation? Could they not create new solidarity, alleviate misery, and help to overcome the crisis? Yes, they can and they do. However, with the values they convey, they are not only problem solvers, but also part of the problem.
Religion and society are—despite or because of the First Amendment—known to be closely intertwined in the United States. This view can be traced back to Alexis de Tocqueville, who claimed religion in the United States had entered into a symbiotic relationship with political liberty. According to Tocqueville and his followers, republican and religious traditions of self-governance, voluntarism, and virtuousness are responsible for America’s exceptional customs. This interlinking of individualism, religion, and civil society is still characteristic of the United States today.
Religiosity is indeed still a decisive, independent factor in influencing pro-sociality, help, charitable actions, and donations—this has been confirmed by studies not only of the United States. Those who go to church regularly donate a greater portion of their income than people with weaker religious ties—and the same applies when income and education are statistically controlled. The high level of voluntarism in the United States—50% of the population is involved in civic activities on a regular basis—can be attributed to the comparatively high degree of religiosity and church affiliation among Americans, roughly a quarter of whom attend a church service every week. Evidently, religious traditions are particularly well suited to awakening and upholding charitable motives and values. That is the positive side of American religiosity. In the coronavirus crisis, religious communities do and will continue to mobilize their resources to help those in need.
At the same time, quite a few religious communities are suspicious of the state. It is often associated with negative attributes of coercion, bureaucracy, overregulation, and arbitrariness. This harsh comparison overlooks the fact that society needs the state as a guarantor of common goods. These common goods, such as social security and health, must first be recognized as such. The European observer in particular finds it difficult to understand why religious communities have contributed relatively little to acknowledging these universal safeguards that make societies more resilient in times of crisis.
With progressivism, then the New Deal, and finally the Great Society of the 1960s, the twentieth century has also seen periods in which social rights were more strongly emphasized and religious communities also largely followed these ideals. At the latest since the 1980s, and particularly evident in the welfare reform of 1996, the United States turned back to the path of reformed Protestantism: Hard work, personal responsibility, and economic success are again decisive also for the state of salvation and election. The new forms of expressive and self-centered religiosity fit well the requirements of a neoliberal capitalism that calls for various elements of creativity, individual initiative, project orientation, and self-control. What Max Weber already observed in the case of Benjamin Franklin, namely that philanthropic, religious, and capitalist impulses permeate each other, is still (or again) typical for the United States today.
Also, religious concepts of help for those affected are often individualistically oriented and based on expectations of reciprocity. One must therefore first qualify for assistance. It is not without reason that in American history a distinction is repeatedly made between the deserving and undeserving poor. The giving of many religious communities is thus conditional and not unconditionally and universalistically oriented. This has reasons in American religiosity itself.
If one looks only at Christianity and distinguishes it roughly along three traditions (Catholics, Lutherans, Reformed Protestants), interesting differences become apparent: For instance, the distinction between deserving and undeserving poor in Catholicism is irrelevant, but highly relevant for Reformed Protestants. Group orientation is strongly pronounced in Catholicism, while Lutherans and Calvinists are individualistically oriented and stigmatize poverty. Among Reformed Protestants, especially among evangelicals, the conviction that poverty is not only an individual problem, but also indicates that one is a sinner and not chosen, prevails most often.
Over the last decades, collective and universalist positions have been pushed more and more into the background in religious discourse and individualistic-evangelical positions became stronger. As long as a large part of the American religious communities consider solidarity and aid in an individualistic way and grant it conditionally, social order will continue to erode. The United States seems currently to be almost on the road to social self-destruction, and the religious communities could only stop this if they could call for and contribute to a great ecumenical movement and to a mobilization of universal social solidarity. Charity alone will not be able to overcome social lines of conflict as long as common religious values cannot be agreed upon, such as the need to protect every individual life, as a collective rather than an individual task. American society has always been able to unleash extraordinary dynamics and processes of change in times of crisis. Let us hope that this time, too, it will be possible to address also the religious roots of the current social crisis.