The Magazine

Not a Leap of Faith

The empirical case for faith-based social services.

Jun 30, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 41 • By JOHN J. DILULIO JR.
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IN RECENT YEARS there has been an explosion in empirical research on faith-based social programs. Most studies, including the most scientifically rigorous, find that faith moves social and civic mountains. Last year, researchers at the University of Pennsylvania released a report identifying over 500 scientifically sound studies in which the "faith factor" was associated with results ranging from reductions in hypertension, depression, and suicide to lower rates of drug abuse, educational failure, nonmarital teenage childbearing, and criminal behavior.

Consider the latest scientific literature on religion and crime. With all due qualifications and caveats, some 50 empirical studies report that religious influences and institutions reduce violence and delinquency. Consider, for example, the work of my Penn colleague Byron Johnson, director of the Center for Research on Religion and Urban Civil Society (CRRUCS). In a 1997 Justice Quarterly study, he reported that New York state prisoners who participated intensively in Bible studies administered by Prison Fellowship ministries (on whose board I once served) were only a third as likely to be arrested a year after release as otherwise comparable prisoners who did not participate. In a forthcoming follow-up study, he finds that, on average, eight years after release, the Bible studies participants remained arrest-free over 50 percent longer than the parolees in the comparison group.

Likewise, in a just-released six-year study of a faith-based program in a Texas prison run by Prison Fellowship, Johnson reports that, two years after release, inmates who completed the 22-month program (16 months in prison plus 6 months of post-release care) were less likely to be rearrested than inmates paroled early from the program and than otherwise comparable inmates who did not participate in the program.

Indeed, only 8 percent of the Prison Fellowship program graduates, versus 20 percent of the matched comparison group, were incarcerated within two years after being released. Equally striking were the prisoners' own words concerning how the program effected rehabilitation by proclaiming God's love, fostering spiritual growth, and stressing the need to give back to society. Typical was the comment by one prisoner that he had "learned what life is about since being here . . . life is about helping others to grow like I'm growing. . . . I saw that other people loved me. Then I wanted to do the same."

As Johnson's report stressed, more research is sorely needed. And yet scores of studies now find that religious influences and institutions are especially beneficial in the lives of America's most truly disadvantaged children and youth. These studies tell of schooling success among low-income Latino youth; improved employment prospects for low-income African-American youth; rapid gains in reading ability among urban elementary school students; cost-effective delinquency prevention services; the mobilization of year-round mentors for prisoners' children; and much else as well.

For instance, a 4-year, 16-city study released in 2002 and 2003 by Public/Private Ventures, a nonprofit research organization in Philadelphia on whose board I serve, documents that faith-based organizations promote effective delivery of employment, education, and other justice system services to high-risk youth and adjudicated young adults. Another recent Public/Private Ventures study found that when churches partnered with public schools to provide quality after-school reading programs to some 900 children who were reading two or more years below grade level, the improvements were dramatic: After about 100 days, younger children vaulted 1.9 years in reading ability, and high school pupils gained a year.

So, whether with respect to reducing recidivism rates, improving public health outcomes, accelerating volunteer mobilization, or other objective measures, the empirical evidence has become weighty enough for numerous top scientific organizations to begin taking religion seriously. For example, in April, a landmark three-day conference held at the National Institutes of Health explored how to integrate the growing body of research on health and spirituality into the delivery of clinical care and social services.