Public Justice Review


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

Part 2: Practical Applications for FBUs in Forming Civil Society

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: This article, the second in the three-part series by John Larrivee, explores how faith-based universities (FBUs), like Mount St. Mary’s University, 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, especially faith-based organizations, is uniquely effective at helping people, particularly in developing character and learning the ideas and ideals critical for human effort. Faith-based universities are the rare institutions in society with both understanding of human complexity and the capacity to assist organizations to be more effective. This article, by Professor John Larrivee of Mount St. Mary’s, poses two themes that capture approaches that can be done internal and external to the university to support civil society:

1. Why does my service matter?

2. Serving those who serve.



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 or what builds civil society? Whatever institution does that must blend sophisticated treatment of human behavior with capacity to help organizations function more efficiently.

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 FBUs’ complex and integrated curricula 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. 

The first article explored how despite this potential, FBUs currently do little compared with their potential. Understanding the complicated story of why they do little as involving a history of universities, the interaction of religion and society, philosophical and intellectual trends, and their impact on policy approaches to public problems, helps understand what went wrong so we can correct it and from there how FBUs can finally assemble a strategy to guide their strategies, including their work with civil society. 

I recommend two themes capture approaches that can be done internal and external to the university:

1. Why does my service matter? (internal)

2. Serving those who Serve. (external)

The first involves not only activities, but a fundamental shift to explain why personal service, and therefore civil society, matters - as part of a university strategy in which personal action matters. We can only explain why personal service is important if personal action matters too. That means the curriculum must include engagement with behavioral and social theory and policy. In the process it supports a broad FBU personalism about taking human agency, ideas, and civil society seriously. It includes both curricular and student life sides, as well as marketing and recruiting. 

The second pertains to different ways in which the FBUs can actually help the FBOs. The huge shift here is from service as a student activity, of students serving individuals participating in programs, to the university seeking to help the organizations themselves to be more efficient. Organization to organization - FBU to FBO - assistance here will unleash more effective person to person aid down the line.

Before considering specific strategies in each, I want to draw four particularly important conclusions from the history in the first essay that should inform the strategies for FBUs working with FBOs.  

(i) Promoting an active human subject and confronting excessive materialist determinism in the academy is a/the critical strategy for FBUs to survive the economic forces battering higher education. Determinism—rejecting the capacity to act freely and rationally upon ideas, including ideals—impacts every discipline dealing with human action and is too extreme for most students and in fact most academics. Promoting a personalist view of human action provides a substantive academic distinction with many opportunities for interdisciplinary work in the university and applications by disciplines outside it. That includes validating the importance of civil society in contributing to human potential and the ideas informing individual action.

(ii)  Determinism is the common threat to both FBUs and FBOs, and survival of both depends upon confronting it. Collaboration between them will be the most powerful approach to do so.

(iii) To ultimately help FBOs most, FBUs will have to explore how civil society’s fostering of spiritual resources is often the most important contribution they make. 

(iv) FBUs will always be beaten by larger universities in the number of service opportunities they can offer. Surprisingly, FBUs nonetheless have a massive strength: they are in the best position to offer a rich account of why personal service (i.e. civil society) of students matters. That gives FBUs an enormous advantage to attract and retain students to/in the university and to inspire and equip them for a life of effective service relative to materialist universities whose determinism downplays the role of individual action and ideas.  

I. Focus on a Sophisticated Account of Human Rationality and Action Can Offer a Substantial Market Niche In the Face of Pressures in Higher Education 

Market pressures facing universities today, particularly many small, liberal arts FBUs, are enormous. FBUs’ religious liberal arts curricula are getting hammered by the multiple trends of diminished religiosity of students, reduced interest in the liberal arts and greater focus on jobs, cheaper alternatives, declining student populations, and the commodity nature of most of the academy in which the vast majority of the thousands of educational programs are little different from those elsewhere. Universities with small endowments must find a substantive distinction fast or risk going extinct. Thus all FBUs recognize the pressures to develop a more robust Christian academic angle. But what will work?

I believe an emphasis on an active human person is an approach that is academically sophisticated and that has extensive disciplinary and professional applications. To pull it off requires complex integration across the curriculum that is still often present in FBUs, but extraordinarily difficult for the vast majority of universities that succumbed to the consumer model of higher education and have long since lost the kind of integration needed. Thus this is a viable approach with professional and societal applications few others can rival.

Some of these pressures, e.g. demographic decline, are general challenges facing all universities. But some pressures are the result of intellectual trends of the academy, and FBUs’ own strategies over the past 150 years. Broadly, universities did not go secular(non- or anti-theistic) so much as they went naturalistic (looking only for material, physical explanations), or materialistic (believing material reality is all that exists, thus material causes are the only causes). It wasn’t a theistic question; they didn’t oppose God directly. It was metaphysics, worldview: they generally assumed that matter, physical reality is all that exists. That ruled out God, souls, eternal/universal moral law, and the afterlife as beyond the concern of university inquiry.

But it didn’t stop there. When it came to human action, materialism/naturalism have a strong implication: either you cannot observe/discern whether action is free, rational or on the basis of ideas, or free, rational action is impossible in the first place. Not perfectly, not universally, but pretty widely, most disciplines, and the universities focused ever more on material factors to explain human action, and ever less on the role of individual, rational choice, and from there, the role of ideas that could inform those choices. 

Rather than fight these intellectual trends, most FBUs took one of two strategies: create an authentic, rich faith environment for students to grow, or focus on ethics and issues. Both paths involved taking standard education offered at secular schools, and adding ethics and theology. Unfortunately, neither path effectively asked: is there something missing systematically in the methods and theories of the secular universities? Neither defended the basic assumption of free, rational individuals and the role of ideas or explored how they would matter. This further obscured or reduced consideration of civil society, and downplaying or ignoring the role of ideas diminished the role of faith itself.

While of course unintentional, FBUs took an intellectual strategy in which the role of religion appeared as primarily moral commentary that, however important to people of faith, was perceived as extraneous to academic inquiry. In holding to the theology and moral reflection, but ceding behavioral theory to the secular academy, they failed to adequately search out what was missing in secular inquiry into the world, and in which ideas and human action, and civil society which involves the combination of both, were diminished, or eliminated. 

While FBUs heroically rejected the moral relativity and nihilism of materialist universities, that wasn’t enough to have real world applications, engagement with the disciplines, or interdisciplinary sophistication. Without a focus on human action, initiatives to promote university mission channeled faculty into primarily moral reflection. This was good, but not the level of engagement with systemic questions of their fields, contributions to a richer academic discussion, or applications that would justify the extra effort and expense of a religious education. 

Thus part of the problem facing FBUs is having adopted pathways that failed to adequately empower them to define and develop substantive ways in which they differed from materialist universities. 

This weakness has become their brand. Today, popular perception of FBUs, by themselves and the public, is of universities that offer a strong moral, ethical, or religious component. But few people see them as having important insights into the very way we think about and analyze the world, or of how a faith basis can produce a distinctively sophisticated education with professional value. 

Today, as the higher education market contracts, and doubly so for faith-based liberal arts schools facing a population of less religiously devoted teens, that model is greatly at risk. Failure to carve out that brand distinction threatens their survival.

That’s the bad news.

The good news is that understanding human action is one of the most foundational aspects of any university. It's huge. We’re not talking expertise in outdated arcana like accounting procedures of northern Italy in the late 1300s, or so focused as to be useless for other areas, such as “optimal alloy compositions for sousaphone construction.” It’s huge. How people function is by far the largest part of university curricula. It figures into the broadest number of disciplines, and it is so complex that it takes incredible interdisciplinary integration to get it right. The problem is that it’s so huge no one department was in charge of keeping the vision together. That means that as secular universities succumbed to the consumer model of variety without integration, they became ever less capable of handling human action well. On the other hand, FBOs that kept an integrated core, even if it didn’t cover human action well, are in a superior position to put such a curriculum together now. 

It’s not that faith cannot provide substantial market value for an education, even in a less religious culture. The current weakness of FBUs is not a sign that somehow a lens of faith is a barrier to academic sophistication and survival, thus religion itself is the problem. It’s that the waysmost FBUs integrated religion historically did not adequately get at human functioning and from there could not provide adequate (valued in the market) applications for an increasingly secular/culture. The good news is that can be overcome.

And it can give FBUs an advantage. Failure to understand the complexity of human action has thus hurt all universities in interdisciplinary consideration within the curriculum. Some occurs, but nowhere near as much could or should. And that misses out on the many applications in which real human action as involving reasons has consequences. FBUs have until now not capitalized on the opportunities created by this gap. But the good news is that many can. 

The good news is that the massive usefulness, centrality and importance of understanding human action means any university that gets it closer to right will have a superior, thus valuable, education. 

The good news is that much of the commodity nature in the academy is not mere coverage of common truths and procedures such as calculus and accounting that must be the same everywhere (for which ultimately the richest schools would have greatest advantage to cover most effectively), but unjustified commitment to reductionism and determinism and diminished accounts of human action.  

The good news is that the determinism is so rampant and dominant, that few other universities will be able to do such a good job at comprehensive coverage of human action. In a commodity market, FBUs whose faith mission guides them to a complex curriculum with a sophisticated treatment of human action integrated across disciplines, e.g. sciences, behavioral sciences, and humanities, will thus have a market niche in a valuable area few others can replicate. That’s safety as the education commodity market contracts.  

True, some secular schools have great depth in individual fields. And that will be a strength they will maintain given their vastly larger resources. Small FBUs will simply not be able to compete department by department against universities with massive endowments. But the good news is that they cancompete by offering sophisticated integrated treatment of human action. 

Average coffee was a commodity market on a massive decades-long decline before Starbucks paved the way for phenomenal success in more expensive gourmet coffee. Similarly, their unique ability to offer comprehensive accounts of human action means FBUs can offer a gourmet education in a contracting commodity market of universities today.

And that’s good news. 

II. Determinism is the Common Threat to Both FBUs and FBOs. 

The most important common feature of both FBUs and FBOs that is distinct from other parts of society is the explicit role of free, rational action on the basis of ideas. This is central to their distinct worth. FBOs assume that people are complex beings with complex needs. The only unique angle of FBOs ultimately is the ideas direct from or implied in their service: people are true beings worthy of love, capable of action in response to the messages of meaning, purpose, and love conveyed through the service. In contrast, if people are simply animals, or if all faith ideals are false, then FBOs are unimportant, if not inefficient ways to help meet people’s material needs. 

Similarly, FBUs only truly distinct role (that explicitly involves academic goals even shared by secularist universities) is sophisticated coverage of human action taking human complexity for rationality seriously.

Both are threatened by materialism that denies free, rational action and/or any true ideals. Both will have to counteract determinism to justify their importance. 

But universities are far better suited to that intellectual role than FBOs. Thus we will have to rely on FBU efforts to carve out market value and academic distinction by defending a personalist view of human action, to also create a renewed defense of civil society. In turn, I believe that assisting FBOs will help FBUs to be stronger academically as well. Because a common foe has shaped their past, their future depends upon an alliance of FBUs and FBOs now. 

III. FBUs Must Explore What and How Spiritual Resources of FBOs Matter

Identifying how ideas matter for individual action in many disciplines naturally carries over to civil society. FBUs must explore how spiritual resources matter for civil society, what ideas and norms are particularly important, and how can civil society most effectively promote them. 

In the 1990s, Angeloyd Fenrick left the comfort of a safe career as a school psychologist to found Columbia Learning International Ministries, a faith-based program for homeless men in Washington, D.C. Having experienced a period of time in which her own father lived on the streets, Fenrick has a deep personal understanding of homeless individuals, but also of the joy (for all involved) of bringing them back to their families, communities, and work. She has among the rarest, but most needed, of talents on the planet: the capacity to reach other people and bring them love, encouragement, and inspiration. The economist in me says: “Here’s a scarce, critically important, resource for society. How does it work? How can we get more of it?”

Robert Fogel (Nobel Prize winner in economics), in his Fourth Great Awakening and the Future of Egalitarianism, offers an extremely helpful way to think of the contribution of civil society. He develops a broad category of what he terms “spiritual resources”: norms, ideas, ideals, and virtues that shape people’s understanding of and capacity for their lives and productive activity. Fogel’s concept is broader than simply values. It includes those, but also any ideas that shape and inspire human effort to work, study, and live more meaningful lives. While not seeking to be definitive, he suggests that these include virtues such as discipline, motivation, and perseverance, and ideas such as sense of family, work, and community. Sometimes richer understanding of life, more appreciation for one’s effort, is critical for enabling people to do what they can in their circumstances. Fogel contends that “of all the maldistributed spiritual resources, sense of purpose may be the most important.” I think that captures Fenrick’s work quite well. But that means we have to understand what the spiritual resources are, how they matter, and how to promote them. That’s a task for the FBUs to explore analytically, and for them to help others understand who wish to follow the unique example of heroes like Fenrick. 

In The Death of Civil Society Howard Husock highlights the critical importance of norms and ideals as part of what empowers individuals, and contends that civil society is particularly important to pass on ideals. But he laments both the diminished role of civil society, and, perhaps even more tragically, that many institutions of civil society no longer recognize their unique and critical role in developing people in character and ideals. Restoring that understanding of their gifts is a major social challenge. Given the ambivalence of materialist universities to human action and ideas, it is unlikely much work in this will be done by them. Consequently, FBUs are society’s best hope to elucidate how and when spiritual resources matter, how FBOs can recover a sense of the importance of ideals, and how to convey them through their work. 

I want to be clear that my focus on spiritual resources here does not deny the role of circumstances and material resources, as important, sometimes even primary, to address. I do not imply material conditions do not matter. Instead, as Reverend Martin Luther King argued in his “Accepting Responsibility for Your Actions,” circumstances matter, but so do individual action and response to those circumstances. And in that space, spiritual resources have a unique role. With thousands of universities and the vast majority of government programs focusing solely on material well-being, society needs some effort devoted to the spiritual resource side, and partnership between FBOs and FBUs makes sense. 

These two pieces—a general defense of civil society made through a personalist view of human agency and, from there, what spiritual resources matter—clearly need the intellectual sophistication of universities to address them well. While President’ Bush’s Office of Faith Based and Community Initiatives was great for helping FBOs improve their organizations and obtain funds, it couldn’t operate on this dimension of analysis about civil society. Similarly, organizations like CPJ have done fantastic work on religious freedom and the recent Sacred Sector project explored ways to assist many FBOs in more effectively living out their faith mission. But this kind of analytical work needs the unified intellectual resources of universities, and it desperately needs to be done. FBUs are the best place for it to occur. 

This need not simply be a new academic burden for underfunded and overstressed universities. Fortunately, this can be part of their overall strategy to academic distinction of a personalist sophistication on human action. Moreover it also validates that approach as academically robust and relevant for the real world. For many students, experience with this reality—that ideas matter for human action, in this case as part of how FBOs are uniquely effective— will be a main way they come to understand and appreciate the FBU curriculum. 

 IV. Offering a Richer Understanding of WHY Personal Service Matters is a Great Way to Recruit, Retain, and Inspire Students: Helping Students Recognize that Personal Service -My Service - IS Civil Society 

According to many surveys, young people today are looking for service. In response, many universities have expanded their opportunities for service and are trumpeting the extensive service programs at Big U is one of the most popular marketing themes out there. EVERY college is offering service, and some are offering way more than others. In that environment, small FBUs are just one of the masses, and often they offer less. Given their small size and scarce resources, if “opportunities for service” is the only way universities look at the issue, then service is just another arena in which the vast majority of FBUs cannot compete with larger, better-funded universities. What can they offer that the rich schools cannot? 

Something far more important than simply occasions of service: understanding of WHY one’s service matters, and analysis of how to make one’s service even better. 

Focusing on civil society offers a great advantage for inspiring current students and recruiting new ones for universities that get this relationship with civil society correct. Currently, most schools encourage service as a student life activity, but on the academic side offer behavioral and social theories that wildly overemphasize structural, material factors in which only systemic, large-scale strategies matter and personal service does not. This is unlikely to inspire idealistic devotion to sacrifice oneself for others, and is likely to erode it over time. Currently universities run service on the initial energy of wonderful, enthusiastic, young, innocent, but often uninformed, idealism, which they then either fail to nourish or, worse yet, indirectly undermine theoretically in the classroom. Students might be forgiven for sensing a whiff of inconsistency, or, worse yet, hypocrisy, in a university that so heavily promotes service for them but takes little effort to explain why it’s important. The university had better have an explanation for why personal service matters and is uniquely important, or risk exposure for promoting, and wasting student time on, ineffective approaches to social problems.

In contrast, a school that explains why personal service matters, is deeply involved with many organizations at a substantial level, and invites students into that dynamic process of assistance will be able to take that initial idealism, nourish it, inform it, and powerfully transform and inspire the students for a lifetime. Current students will love it and thrive in it. 

As an approach, I find the question, “Why does my service matter?” is a gentle entry into an issue of great complexity. It is a question for self-examination both or oneself and for the university. The student should understand the need for sophisticated answers to justify why personal service is so special and how the inspiration through personal relationships cannot be replaced by technological or economic solutions like the internet, smartphones, delivery by drone, or redistribution. From the academic side, the question forces the university to constantly ask if the current curriculum adequately prepares students to understand why and how sometimes they alone, personally, are the most important difference needed in some small, but important, part of our world - another person’s life. 

In this, I find another useful angle is to help students realize that their service is civil society. From there, they can understand the importance of, and theories about, civil society through the specific case of their service. Civil society is not an irrelevant abstract term of some political science course they haven’t taken yet and that does not apply to them. Stating it as “Personal service - my service - is civil society” helps students realize how “civil society” refers  much of the most important life experience and service work they themselves have done. It provides the analytical lens to see their service within a broader view of individuals and groups in society. 

Explaining why personal service matters can also offer a huge advantage recruiting students interested in service. If these idealistic students care deeply, but have little information on which to decide between schools, they’ll go for Big U’s apparently more extensive service program. But helping them consider the question, “Why does my service matter?” and promising a curriculum that can answer it, provides an approach seventeen year-olds can understand and act upon. That great group of idealistic teenagers will sense the difference, and flock to schools promising to offer a richer story of why their service matters and how to be more effective.

I could even imagine a “Where’s the beef?” type of marketing campaign for many FBUs to pop the marketing appeal of Big U’s apparently bigger service offering. In that famous ad, the elderly woman pointing at the numerous, but seemingly empty, buns of their competitors’ burgers pointed out their obvious weakness: a burger place should actually have serious burgers. Here, this question can expose the weakness of Big U’s service claims. They offer a lot of service opportunities, but little to satisfy students hungering for an explanation of why they matter.

Currently, small FBUs are easily outpaced by bigger universities with more numerous, better-funded service opportunities. But they can fight back powerfully by going right to the foundation: challenging other schools to answer “why does personal service matter” and then offering far better explanations than universities with more reductionist or determinist influences in their curricula can do. This again works to the advantage of FBUs who can more easily make the case without upsetting the social and behavioral theory establishment in their schools. I think FBUs have a better hand than they think. We just have to help them play it right. 

In this second article in a series on how faith-based universities can and should support faith-based nonprofits, I’ve explored some ways faith-based universities can harness their resources, spiritual animating values, and expertise to support faith-based nonprofits and congregations in their communities. In particular, I have considered the following three reasons that FBUs ought consider engaging and resourcing civil society: 

1. Seeking out civil society engagement and integration into the curricula and research of FBUs offers a potential market niche in the competitive space of higher education; 

2. Both FBUs and faith-based civil society organizations are threatened by determinism, and FBUs can strengthen their own capacities to put forth an alternative to determinism when then help FBOs navigate this challenge; 

3. FBUs are distinctively equipped to explore, through research, service, classroom resources, etc., the spiritual resources that make faith-based nonprofits distinct in how they serve their communities; and 

4. A curriculum that teaches why personal service matters can give FBUs a huge recruiting advantage even over larger, better funded universities with more numerous service offerings.

In the third part in this series, I will take up the question of how FBUs can empower faith-based civil society by shifting the place of service by the university from students to working directly with FBOs (serving those who serve), as well as creating a curriculum and service opportunities that answer “Why does my service matter?” that helps students deepen their engagement with the faith-based social sector beyond service, and connect their personal service with the larger structural questions and answers civil society provides. 


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.