Public Justice Review


Unleashing the Potential of Faith-Based Universities to Support Faith-Based Civil Society

Part 1: Historical Backdrop

By John Larrivee

John Larrivee is an associate professor of economics at Mount St. Mary’s University in Emmitsburg, Maryland, specializing in public finance and history of economic thought. He is director of the Mount’s BB&T Center for the Study of the Moral Foundations of Capitalism, which explores how views of the human condition shape our understanding of economics, business, and social theory about economic phenomena through the question of human freedom. Larrivee has extended that approach to demonstrate how a focus on the complexity of human action is the sophisticated and distinct contribution of faith-based universities to the academy generally, providing both theoretical insights and real world applications. Larrivee's work has included analysis and promotion of civil society, particularly of faith-based programs to build up, transform, and inspire people at the personal level.


Abstract: Civil society is the broad term for religions, families, and civic associations formed largely by private/voluntary membership. These are often people’s first and major sources of relationship and development. In academic literature, the church’s contribution to society is often analyzed through this lens of civil society, in both the role of ideas and formation of people in relationships. That includes the work of such groups as the Daughters of Charity, founded by Elizabeth Ann Seton, which provide material assistance and education (which provide both skills and ideals).  

This article, the first in a two-part series, explores how faith-based universities (FBUs), like Mount St. Mary’s, a Christian university in Maryland, can harness their resources, spiritual animating values, and expertise to support faith-based nonprofits and congregations in their communities--specifically through establishing a Center for Civil Society.  



Civil society is the broad term for religions, families, and civic associations formed largely by private and voluntary membership. These are generally people’s first and major sources of relationship and development. In academic literature, contribution of religion to society is often analyzed through the lens of civil society, in both the role of ideas and formation of people in relationships. That includes the work of churches themselves, as well as schools, ministries, and projects organized by them, providing everything from material assistance and education, to character formation and inspiration. It includes everything from Bible studies to soup kitchens and homeless ministries. 

While the unique role and efficacy of civil society in building and empowering people and culture is widely acknowledged, that leads to another question: who builds civil society? What part of society would be best positioned to help the institutions of civil society, especially faith-based organizations, to be stronger?

Helping civil society is too different from the basic role of business, so that’s out. Government would make more sense, and has done some of this via efforts such as President Bush’s Office of Faith Based and Community Initiatives. But laudable as that has been for exploring where this is practical, this cannot be the solution either. Faith-based organizations (FBOs), which are not and should not be part of government, are animated by faith and work through churches in ways government cannot, and involve relational approaches that emphasize the agency, rationality, and complexity of individuals. While government may be good at many things, having a sophisticated anthropological view that helps to understand and identify which of the many complex needs of each individual person is most pressing and how to address it is certainly not typically a strongpoint of massive secularist bureaucracies. We’re not talking about helping rats or building robots. Helping people cannot simply be done by artificial intelligence, heard on the internet, delivered by drone, sent by check, or bought on Amazon.

So, what other institutions in society have the ability to help organizations that specialize in building people? That requires two main pieces: understanding people in the first place, and helping individuals and organizations be more effective. They have to be sophisticated enough to provide an understanding of people and their needs - an anthropological view with human behavioral and social theory - as well as the capacity to train others to meet those complex needs and to help or develop approaches and institutions to do so.

I believe faith-based universities (FBUs) are the most sensible means by which society empowers civil society, especially of religious organizations. First, all universities already study human action and need, and the complex and integrated curricula of FBUs have a further advantage in providing the most sophisticated understanding of that. Second, they already prepare their students for professional excellence and often work to improve organizations outside the universities themselves. Internally, the curriculum can emphasize the complexity of human need, the role of civil society in meeting those needs, and how students can appreciate, support, and work in civil society throughout their lives. Externally, universities are effective at supporting organizations by direct assistance, and are uniquely positioned to help FBOs to understand the role of faith as itself part of aid to people, to promote and defend religious freedom in society, and to research and inform best practices by local practitioners.

Moreover, the concept of FBUs assisting FBOs aligns with a public justice framework because it is civil society empowering civil society, a process which helps both FBOs and FBUs to fully live into their God-given institutional gifts and capacities, thereby more fully advancing their right roles and responsibilities as Christian ministries and as institutions of higher education.

That’s a lot of promise. FBUs could thus be a tremendous service to society by empowering civil society, especially FBOs.

Sadly, while the need and potential for assistance is great, the reality is that outside a few universities making heroic efforts, such support of civil society by FBUs is rare. While many universities encourage service by students individually, they do little in the curriculum to point out that personal service is civil society, to help understand why personal service matters, or to explore the unique efficacy of civil society generally. Further, if personal service does matter, shouldn’t they expend some effort to assess why, how to do it better, and to improve it in their area? But that self-reflection and action are not common. FBUs are wildly underperforming in their social opportunity to help civil society.

In sum, civil society, particularly FBOs, is uniquely effective at meeting some complex human needs.

FBUs are uniquely positioned in society to be the most effective means of assisting FBOs.

But currently they do far too little. So, how do we get FBUs more effectively involved?

To be most effective, university support for civil society needs to blend external action, research, theory, curriculum, and student life. But these functions must flow from drawing the appropriate lessons from a complex combination of philosophical, historical, academic, and institutional histories and responses to contemporary concerns. The following reviews those trends, then explores ways FBUs can help. In turn, I believe that assisting FBOs will help FBUs to be stronger academically as well.

The distinct and fundamental contribution of FBUs to the academy is to fill in when the reductionism of the academy has blinded it to a richer, more accurate account of human action and obscured more effective ways of meeting human needs. FBUs’ unique service to society is to empower those institutions left undeveloped by that academic gap. If they get this right, a focus by FBUs on empowering civil society not only provides an important way for the FBUs to have extraordinary impact on society, it could help make them among the most sophisticated universities in the country.

Civil Society in U.S. History  

The role of civil society stems from the basic view of human nature: people are more than animals, and have some capacity to act freely on the basis of ideas. For most of human history, most cultures and traditions assumed some level of active human subject. From that understanding, good societies are formed by the development of good people, through the cultivation of virtue and the passing on of ideals. In that vision, civil society has a critical part to play in forming virtues and teaching ideals. Naturally, religion serves a particularly important role in both. Moreover, many social problems have elements that cannot be fully solved with government checks, redistribution, economic change, delivery by drone, etc., and instead need the personal relationship and ideals central to civil society.  

The United States was founded with that view of the human condition central to our experiment in ordered liberty. Civil society–particularly families and churches–served as the primary “seedbeds of virtue,” in cultivating virtue and character, and in passing on the ideals on which to act. These ideals included self-reliance and service to others. In addition, these institutions served as “mediating institutions,” providing natural groups for people to serve others, and guard against arbitrary forces in society and/or politics. That combination maximized freedom overall, to help people be more free both internally, and from oppression externally.  

The idea of a civil society also fits with the circumstances of the first century of American life. In the United States, many problems people faced were often small scale or personal in nature, thus the emphasis on civil society from the founding made sense both from a political theory and cultural standpoint.  Itt also was reasonable based on the scale and nature of the problems.  

By the end of the 1800s, however, many new problems (market fluctuations, economic cycles, immigration, industrialization, urbanization, the rise of large business, etc.) arose whose magnitude was so large that they could not be addressed solely by emphasis on people, ideals, or small institutions: they needed larger scale government action. This was central to the Progressive era: government action to solve the rising large-scale problems, and, in some instances, to coordinate society.  

Civil Society in the Social Sciences and Intellectual Trends of the Late 1800s  

This period coincided with the rise of the social sciences, whose study of people and society documented how material factors caused many problems (and to what degree). Moreover, these material causes— aspects of physical existence and society—could be changed. As Pope Benedict XVI described, it appeared to transform many human problems into engineering problems that simply needed technological solutions. That provided an agenda for reform: change/reform those areas of society that create social problems; structure policies and social relations for the most positive outcomes.  

The real need to address the large scale of some modern problems overlapped with another phenomenon of the time: the ideas themselves, particularly of philosophical materialism. A major dimension of the modern era, particularly after 1850, was an increasing embrace of the ancient Epicurean idea that the physical/observable universe is all that exists. While first applied to physical nature, then biology, it had to ultimately be extended to people as well. We had to ask: what is possible for human action/capacity if matter is all that exists, if people are only material beings? This integrated philosophy, science, and social theory in the all-encompassing spirit of the times. For some theorists it was just a matter of degree in theory, methodology and policy: some level of material factors obviously limit human freedom, they are the easiest to study and provide some places government policy can reform, so let’s start there.  

Reductionism in the Modern University Blinded the Role of Individuals, Ideas, and Civil Society  

In that materialist view, the role of individual action (free action on the basis of both ideas and ideals) and character/virtue as well as the institutions that build people individually and personally (i.e. civil society) fade in importance compared to the larger structures of the economy or society. Thus often without fully understanding it, modern universities embraced materialism and viewed the world through reductionism. Celebrating the fact that material causes to individual and social problems meant that we could solve them through changing the material factors, many ignored how extension of materialist reductionism to everything implied that people were not free. Focused on material factors almost exclusively, universities did little to cultivate a vision of when and how the individual person, ideas, and from there civil society could matter. Blending the ideas, social theory, and desire to support government efforts for larger scale policies, universities spent little effort to understand when problems were more small scale, at the individual level, and/or involved ideas and character, all dimensions more appropriate for civil society. Of course, universities were not simply passively accepting these ideas: often universities were the major promoters of these intellectual trends and their social implications.  

Failure of Faith-based Universities to Study or Contribute to Civil Society Common  

Surprisingly, and sadly, faith-based universities followed these trends nearly as fully as secular (materialist) universities did, focusing almost exclusively on how material factors affect people, and limit what they do. This both made sense (material factors were huge questions of the time) and was institutionally easier. It provided a pathway for university mission that could be easily embraced: follow the same intellectual approach as the rest of the academy, but add to it a focus on values, i.e. that approaches to social questions involved values of the religion, and that the religious emphasis of the college was largely expressed as ethics, ethical evaluation and application of ethics to individual and social circumstances. This became the hallmark of education at religious schools, and, as George Marsden notes, the path from mission to secularization and loss of religious identity entirely. 

Marsden explores how faith-based universities largely took two pathways academically: focus on the religious atmosphere and culture of the university, or focus on ethics and issues. Schools taking the first became known for their robust Christian environment, which emphasized religious instruction and study of faith and values, but were limited in their appeal to students of faith. The second was more accessible to a broader, less religious audience. Most schools took the second. Both strategies, however, portrayed religious education as “secular education plus religious values and meaning,” which came to dominate the view of the role of Christian universities.  

Neither path answered the basic question: how was a religious university different? The implication was that a secular education was perfectly fine, thus you only needed the “religious values and meaning” if you were part of the religion. No university adequately explored the academic question: did a worldview—materialist or religious—ever have consequences for analysis? Is the materialist approach missing something besides values and meaning that needs to be accounted for in theory and analysis itself? Thus the faith aspect never entered into any of the academic work—research, teaching, or application—of the faith-based universities. Over time, that failure gave the appearance that faith-based universities (and behind them, religion itself) contribute nothing to analysis of the world and appears irrelevant to it. Over time, the emptiness created by this problem allowed ever more originally faith- based universities to lose their mission due to inability to express any relevant academic distinction faith provided. By the end of the twentieth century, the majority of even religiously grounded universities had rejected any religious foundation.  

Examining Accelerated Religious Decline: Service as a Student Activity, Not an Academic Subject  

These trends, paradoxically, reveal that service actually accelerated/contributed to the decline of religious mission. As Marsden documents, lacking any robust academic distinction provided by religion, many schools switched the focus of religious identity from academics to student life: in what ways did student life reflect a Christian view?  

Many universities claimed that their religious mission was fine as long as student life radiated these aspects of Christian life. Thus, active participation in service projects implied that the Christian nature of the school was strong. In reality, this only masked the fact that faith never really mattered to the academic content of the university. In time, even these vestiges of Christianity in student life themselves became too thin, but by then there was too little faith left in the academic mission to retain anything, or reason to return to something seemingly without impact.  

Moreover, conducted as a student life function, service was adequately separated from the academic program so that no-one seemed to catch the fundamental inconsistency that the university promoted personal service while teaching it didn’t matter! Student life offices enthusiastically encouraged service by students as moral, or developing life skills and habits. In contrast, the academic side, having embraced materialism and reductionism, taught social theories in which people were simply products of conditions, in which only material factors–not personal service–mattered. Despite all the hype to encourage service by universities everywhere, faith-based or not, the vast majority undermined any reason to do personal service by teaching theory in which it was irrelevant. Students today who challenge or wonder “Why should I do service if my service doesn’t matter?” can be excused for simply drawing the logical conclusion from the social theory presented in the classroom by the universities themselves. To this must be added the particular aspect of religious belief, and whether people can act on religious ideas and concepts. For faith-based universities, failure to explain how faith-based approaches could matter contributed to the general conclusion that faith itself—the ideas the religion has to offer—doesn’t matter. The failure to reflect upon the role of civil society did not just risk undermining student participation in service. Far more importantly, it undermined faith-based universities’ contribution to society through civil society itself. It blinded the universities to how civil society could matter, and from exploring how the university itself could contribute to civil society.  

Sadly, the same reductionism FBUs adopted to be similar to the rest of the academy, blinded themselves both to the role of civil society, and to how they, as faith-based institutions with an academic focus, could contribute to civil society. This was not simply by sending students to the soup kitchens, but it was of universities— institutions established to empower other institutions—helping the organizations. This type of service went beyond the simple act of service and beyond students serving others, as important though that might be; this service requires serving those who serve.  

Contributing to society might be the university as an organization serving other organizations, helping them  become more effective at serving people. This requires a completely different level of attention and assistance. The next article in this two-part series on the role of the faith-based university in supporting civil society will explore ways in which FBUs can tangibly harness their resources to benefit local sacred sector institutions, as well as their own faith-based missions. 


To respond to the author of this article, please email PJR@cpjustice.org. The articles in Public Justice Review do not represent a consensus of positions on questions of public policy. We do not expect our readers will agree with all the arguments they find here, but we believe that within the broad tradition of what we call public justice we can do more by providing a forum for the debate and exchange of Christians, within those bounds, to work out public policy faithful to God and in service of our neighbors. We do not necessarily share the views expressed, but we do accept responsibility for giving them a chance to appear.