Public Justice Review


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

Part 3: Practical Strategies for FBUs

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, 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 the understanding of human complexity and the capacity to assist organizations to be more effective. This article, the third in a series, explores some ways faith-based universities can harness their resources, spiritual animating values, and expertise to support faith-based nonprofits and congregations in their communities.  Professor John Larrivee of Mount St. Mary’s explores how FBUs, through engaging faith-based civil society, can (1) help 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, and (2) help the organizations themselves to be more efficient.


In the second article in the series on how faith-based universities can and should support faith-based nonprofits, I suggested four reasons why FBUs ought to consider engaging and resourcing civil society: 1. FBUs can develop a powerful market niche by specializing in the topic “how do people act/function,” and promoting a personalism which both has extensive applications externally and sophistication within the curriculum internally, while also naturally raising the role of civil society 2. Both FBUs and faith-based civil society organizations are threatened by determinism, and FBU efforts to confront determinism can 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. Rich curricular coverage of civil society that explains to students why their service matters can give the university a marketing advantage in attracting students looking for service opportunities in college. 

In this third article, I will take up the question of how FBUs, through engaging faith-based civil society, can (1) help 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, and (2) help the organizations themselves to be more efficient. The first is the change in curriculum and activities to emphasize the importance of people and ideas generally, which will spill over to rationalize the role of civil society specifically. They must provide an adequate worldview and associated analytical framework to enable each person in the university to answer the question “Why does my service matter?” The second dimension recognizes the unique service that universities themselves, not only the students, can do to help the organizations themselves to be more effective. This is a shift from “service” as simply something students do, often through organizations, to explore how the university can serve the organizations themselves.  

Strategy 1: Creating a Curriculum that Answers the Question: Why Does My Service Matter?

As noted above, the first part of enabling FBUs to serve civil society is to help cultivate a sophisticated understanding within the university about the general theme of how people function and from there the role of personal service and civil society, particularly in both its faith dimension and in relation to contemporary behavioral and social theory, and social policy. This helps students more effectively understand their service and civil society, and it contributes to the distinct sophistication of the intellectual approach of faith-based universities to take the human person seriously as a free, rational, intentional, subject.

Sadly, barring some heroic institutions, FBUs have not strongly supported civil society for a long time. One major reason is that they acquiesced in the face of modern behavioral and social theory’s materialist driven determinism that over- (or exclusively) emphasized large-scale material factors in affecting human behavior. Free will, rationality, ideas, virtues, values, personal development — all central to the personal relationships of civil society — were dropped out, and civil society faded from curricular view. Exploration and promotion of civil society disappeared. Paradoxically, FBUs often became blind to the intellectual framework with which to view the role of religion in society itself. In many cases, even if they covered religion in the curriculum, they rarely explained or defended its social contribution.

After theology and philosophy, explanation of how religion matters in society, culture, and polity must be perhaps the most important single intellectual area for FBUs to cover. If they don’t, who will? But today few political science, sociology, or history departments have any faculty, or even general effort, dedicated to ensuring the university community understands the positive role of religion and civil society in an intellectually robust way. That lack of academic support is evinced by the absence of civil society in the curriculum, general ignorance of civil society and inability to understand religion’s role in society by students (and faculty), and the anemic, almost non-existent, support of civil society generally, and FBOs specifically. I understand why secular universities might not cover civil society, but it is tragic that FBUs claiming to have a faith basis devote almost no resources to explaining why faith matters in society. They are not even defending their own unique contribution to the academy and culture.

In order for FBUs to effectively support civil society, in all the necessary ways, and especially FBOs, FBUs will have to change their theory, then change their practices. If they don’t change the core of how they look at the world and how people function, they won’t be able to support more than sporadic, isolated, and generally ineffective, efforts to rebuild civil society.

Unfortunately, I don’t think most FBUs currently have enough commitment to mission to do that purely for mission alone given where they are now. FBUs did not intend to adopt the broad anti-mentalist, anti-agency, anti-subjectivism of the determinists, but too many did when uncritically copying their curricula from secular universities. I fear that far too many FBUs have fallen asleep while materialism marched, and it has advanced to their academic hearts and heads while they slumbered. Hostility to human agency is ensconced now and it will have to be extirpated to make lasting progress.

So, what to do? 

Sometimes in moments of spiritual weakness, it is probing questions about spiritual health, rather than direct attacks on flaws, that are the most helpful way to start spiritual healing. I believe that is the case here.

I believe asking the question “Why does my service matter?” is helpful because it is a more invitational reflection leading to the larger issues of behavioral and social theory and the general program of the university. It is a nice way to consider whether the current curriculum adequately equips students to answer the question. Everyone can see it’s the foundational question. Once raised, students will want answers! And once students realize that their service, personal service, is civil society, they’ll want to know about that too. Faculty, awakening to the embarrassment of not having solid answers to such simple, basic questions, will be forced to rouse themselves into action. “What will it take for us to explain and justify personal service as important? This should be easy, right? Or is it? But if we don’t, we look like hypocrites for promoting service in student life, but not justifying it.

So, in this setting, “why does my service matter?” is a potent way to reach students directly, empowering them, awakening others, and disarming potential behavioral and social theory determinists who, Jafar-like, have influenced university curricula, and opposed and denigrated such obvious considerations of human agency as naïve folk psychology. Inoculated with this question, innocent students, once fodder for the social theory cannons, will be immunized from academics who through reductionist determinism radically, excessively simplified their treatment of human action (which is complex) by wiping out the role of ideas, religion, and civil society, and covering their tracks by excessively complexifying their language with abstract social theory and jargon. The words are not all powerful or even most important (I believe the greatest pressure will come from market forces), but they can have a significant “the emperor has no clothes” role in pointing out the nakedness of current calls for service without explanation of why it matters.

Given its importance for and power to dispel the demons of determinism, I also use this question to organize various strategies, from curriculum to student life, to raise understanding of civil society within the university. This not only trains students for a life of complex service, it also organizes the curriculum for the university to become an academic resource for civil society generally, and to be a visible symbol of the intellectual sophistication of religious engagement with the world.

I believe the following elements are necessary on the university side.

1. Promote a view of human behavior that includes room for free, rational action on the basis of ideas. 

As noted above, the biggest contribution would simply be pressing back against the reductionist and materialist determinism that weighed down behavioral and social theory in the past century and diminished expectations of the role of civil society.

2. Promote understanding of civil society across the university, including FBOs and FBUs themselves as part of civil society. 

To develop sophisticated treatment of civil society in the academic community, the FBU has to promote civil society in the first place.  Sadly, while everyone encourages service, most students (and many faculty) approach service as simply a moral activity for students, with few academic implications, and do not understand the complex role of civil society. Many have not even heard of civil society as an analytical framework. 

One way to do this rapidly is through major campus events, special lectures, invited speakers, etc. that pertain to and promote civil society. Most, if not all universities have heroes of service who lived lives in service to others. Publicize the strongest cases, particularly ones that demonstrate that complexity of service in light of human action, theories of the person, etc. At my university we have one to two lectures a year on this theme. One year, we covered Archbishop John Hughes and in another we covered the role of urban ministries. 

A word of caution: it is easy to fall back into bad habits. Given the historical strategy of FBUs to take the values, ethics, and issues approach without exploring human action, FBUs will have to make explicit effort to cover this through the social role of civil society, flowing from a sound anthropology, not merely an expression of religious values. That’s good too, but FBUs must now more openly explain their actions in light of their view of human nature. 

3. Promote understanding that personal service, MY service, is civil society

Of course, I assume this would be a constant theme, but state it here to keep it distinct. 

4. Explore civil society in the curriculum. 

This aim supports the university’s engagement and focuses on the person. Scholars focused on the person in civil society would serve as a resource for the rest of the university on themes involving civil society, especially those faith-based approaches to historical or contemporary social problems. Their work may include offering specific classes such as leadership in faith-based organizations as well as including information and resources in the core areas, ranging from behavioral and social theory to Tocqueville. Beyond that, scholars focusing on civil society reinforce the curricular focus on an active human subject by drawing attention to the role of civil society and faith-based organizations while reflecting upon the complex questions of religion and society in public policy and cultural trends. They can also explain service in its complexity as more than meeting material needs.

5. Learn from the experts and pass on their wisdom and experience.

Another strategy is to invite representatives of FBOs to campus and invite them to engage in current lectures, courses, and conversations with students. FBUs have an important mission to serve society by studying and learning from people such as Angeloyd Fenrick about what works and how it works.

6. Assist student life by augmenting service opportunities. 

Connecting the university’s student life division with the academic framework of the university curriculum greatly expands student contribution to and understanding of service. To do this, faculty need to find a way to (a) link behavioral/social theory to service opportunities in class, the curriculum, or at events, and (b) offer richer student service options by expanding the range of organizations in which students can serve or assist in developing more complex involvement. 

For example, a freshman student might work with the Fellowship of Christian Athletes by assisting high school students in sports, while a senior might work more on improving linkages between the university and FCA. 

7. Assist local faith-based high schools in bringing this sophistication to their own service programs. 

All high schools currently promote service. Most faith-based high schools would welcome connections to local FBUs, particularly if they can help the high school service programs to themselves be more sophisticated. Providing inspiration and guidance to such high school programs is a great way to serve and appeal to schools likely to send students to the university. 

In sum, universities will not be able to support civil society without a systemic understanding of how people function in the first place and how that matters for personal relationships, development, passing on of ideals, etc. Secular universities stopped emphasizing civil society because their determinism blinded them to the role of ideas, ideals, and virtues in human action. FBUs will be unlikely to do much more for civil society unless they confront that impact of determinism and offer a robust, sophisticated personalist account of individual action instead. Once they get that foundation straight, they can contemplate how to spread that across the curriculum, including to issues involving civil society. I would add further that only if the FBUs get the importance of human functioning as a general brand across the university will they have the will to promote civil society as an application of that brand.

Strategy 2: Serving Those Who Serve

The second major theme 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. But what can they do? What types of assistance do they need? The following items consider ways that FBUs could support, assist, and defend FBOs. 

1. Recognize the need for organizational assistance to FBOs and explore means to provide it.

Many organizations are run by individuals with a great heart for service, but with limited training or experience in areas of organizational management such as finance, management, public relations, etc. All universities have personnel with some capacity to provide this, and some already do this, whether as work with FBOs or non-profits generally. On a large scale, President Bush’s Office of Faith Based and Community Initiatives pioneered something like this with workshops devoted to these topics for thousands of organizations across the country. So, the ability  to help and models to follow are already present. The key is shifting the mindset of universities to recognize a new type and locus of service: organizational capacity building for the organizations themselves. 

2. Help FBOs understand how ideals are one of their most important and unique contributions.

As Howard Husock and Robert Fogel contend, spiritual resources (the broad mix of ideas, ideals, values, virtues, that inspire human action) matter enormously for personal effort, and are best taught through civil society. While understanding such contributions as an important part of service was common sense and practice up through 150 years ago, especially for FBOs, today even they are less certain about that role. While some FBOs incorporate this today, on a broad scale I believe it will take FBUs to prove the worth and recover a sense of the importance of inspiration and guidance and perhaps to train a new generation of FBO workers with this understanding.

3. Connect with and promote faith-based organizations in the region.

A critical way to get started is simply to connect with the FBOs in the region. FBUs should seek to understand what organizations, especially FBOs, are nearby and the work they do. They could start by asking: what is unique about this organization, and in what ways is faith a unique and important part of their approach? 

4. Conduct research on faith-based organizations and civil society. 

This contribution can range from direct research, study reviews, and/or publications in related journals, to answering questions linking behavioral theory, social theory and social policy. While most faith-based universities are too small for complex research, all are capable of reviewing available studies and assessing and disseminating best practices. This is similar to the work of extension divisions at many rural universities that make sophisticated contemporary research available to inform farmers in the area. In practice, this may include bringing organizations and individuals to campus, as well as promoting unusually effective programs externally.

5. Develop a national network of professionals and academics who can help other faith-based universities across the country work with faith-based organizations in their region. 

There are amazing people with a wealth of experience to contribute.  Coordinated FBU support of civil society can help improve access of FBOs to individuals, materials, and organizations involved with the faith-based program policy movement. This includes systematizing contacts with experts in the field, making materials and resources more accessible and available, assisting in the development of centers or scholars in this area at other universities, and sponsoring, supporting, and/or hosting national events, conferences, and lectures. The Center for Public Justice has taken a lead role in this network and is a tremendous resource for anyone seeking to increase work with civil society.

6. Promote understanding, including defense, of civil society, particularly of faith-based approaches, on campus and especially in society, including questions of religious freedom. 

Finally, civil society centers can work to promote understanding, and a defense of civil society, particularly of faith-based approaches on campus and in society, including questions of religious freedom. This can include articles, op-eds, web-resources, and events that are open to the public, among other ways. All faith based institutions, including universities, must prepare for and adapt to the greater cultural hostility to religion today. The difference is that among faith-based institutions,  FBUs are uniquely positioned to offer sophisticated guidance in this to churches, church institutions, ministries, etc.

But Won’t this Cost Money? 

Yes, but not as much as might be thought, some has to be done anyway, and some will come with substantial benefits to offset the costs. 

First, as stated, these functions do not require massive projects or funds, though some schools may qualify for that. Much of this work could easily fit within teaching, research, and service obligations of faculty in many departments, as well as by careful selection of (often campus life) personnel who oversee service programs. 

FBUs should explore hiring faculty and personnel with capacity to work with civil society in the first place. A tremendous amount can be done by repurposing the resources and/or positions that already exist. Moreover, faculty work in civil society contributes to the general brand of more sophisticated behavioral and social theory, creating synergies with other faculty and university initiatives. 

Second, as noted above, market and cultural pressures are forcing some of these pieces to be done anyway, particularly the focus on an active subject as a distinct academic brand and issues of religious freedom. Developing a tremendous sophistication in behavioral and social theory, with applications to civil society, is thus not an extraneous cost, but possibly a necessary strategy for survival. 

Another task that must be faced is preparation for religious freedom questions increasingly arising in culture and public policy. FBUs are FBOs. They too will be faced by common questions about religion in the public square, funding of or tax breaks for religious institutions, and the application to (or exemption from) numerous regulations regarding hiring, service, etc. Since FBUs themselves will need to prepare for all this, they will then have a capacity they can offer as a service to FBOs in their regions. That will both develop a network of FBOs and FBUs with more political and social clout, it will further benefit a demographic likely to include many young people or their families who would value a faith-based education.

Again, efforts here are not extraneous burdens of supporting civil society secondary to the academic mission, but taking the reality — we will have to bear the cost of more religious liberty challenges — and turning that into an opportunity.

Third, this creates opportunities for recruiting students and faculty. As noted above, universities that emphasize the importance of civil society and work more closely with FBOs will be able to offer a more compelling story of why personal service matters, and opportunities for richer and more complex service. That market advantage in recruiting will be a critical insurance against the coming contraction in higher education. 

This can also help recruit faculty. Of nearly anyone, faculty care most deeply about the academic mission. High quality faculty would rather be at a less prestigious school with an intellectually sophisticated mission with applications and greater social impact than at a more prominent school that is simply one of the masses of indistinct commodity-like universities. Again, this is not simply extraneous cost, but a strategy to survive by creating a gourmet education in a contracting commodity market.

Fourth, this creates a powerful evangelical opportunity to describe the importance of faith in new ways that are not only less threatened by culture’s hostility to religion, they confront it head on. Attacks on religion in society have often portrayed religion, and thus FBUs, as little more than mumbo-jumbo, rules, anti-intellectual fideism, and outdated classes and topics with no professional application. In that toxic atmosphere, students with weakened religious heritage and/or concerned about political correctness, devote little effort to consider even sophisticated contemporary philosophical arguments for faith and a religious worldview. 

Sometimes, it’s best to go on offense. And in this case, when so many believe they want freedom from religion, attacks on the materialist determinism driving so many contemporary trends reveal that it is the materialists attacking the very capacities of freedom and reason in the first place, while religion seeks to defend those capacities. Moreover, robust defense of the real person by FBUs allows them to provide sophisticated education generally, and justification for service specifically. The path to intellectual distinction, professional excellence, and social impact is thus not away from faith, but through it. I think this will be a critical step in empowering FBUs, encouraging them to live their faith mission, and equipping students of faith to engage the world.

Finally, since faculty and staff willing and able to do this work are likely to be mission friendly, this gives additional market value to hiring for mission. Rising cultural hostility to religion has made it harder than ever to convince departments to hire for mission. But if academic distinction and capacity to market more effectively come through an angle that the faith mission uniquely empowers, then departments will be more likely to hire colleagues interested in and committed to the faith mission.

It should be noted that FBUs are not alone in this. First, some FBOs will be with them. In my own work across the Mount’s region of central Maryland, Baltimore, and Washington, D.C., I have been encouraged to find heroic FBO visionaries interested in collaboration, sensing a need for a new way of working together and of allies in engaging, and surviving the culture.

Also extremely important is a network of professionals who have explored much of the landscape over recent decades and whose knowledge and expertise can help FBUs find and work with FBOs. That includes those working directly with the faith-based policy movement in government, as well as heroes and heroic universities in the academy, such as Byron Johnson at Baylor University. Of exceptional importance is the Center for Public Justice itself. The professionals in it have been on this journey all along. Having explored topics from funding to organizational effectiveness to living out mission, they can guide many FBUs in getting started here. But CPJ is too small, and they are too few, to do this alone. One of the greatest promises is that this proposed effort may provide a means to replicate and disseminate their vast wealth of knowledge and experience to an army of faculty at FBUs who can then provide similar expertise and guidance in their neighborhoods and regions. Moreover, institutions (like FBUs) are more permanent than people. If we can magnify the number of people and institutions involved, we’ll maximize the reach, endurance, and impact of the knowledge developed by the pioneers in this policy movement.


 Sadly, history has shown that an emphasis on service often unintentionally contributed to the decline of mission at many FBUs. Viewed as simply a student life activity, embodying values of Christian service but without a connection to the curriculum, many universities claimed they were meeting their mission as long as student life embodied Christian ideals. Appeased by this logic, they did little on the academic side, and failed to define an academically distinct and substantive role relative to other universities. The belief that “we’re OK as long as we have extensive service” masked the fundamental problem — failure to explicate what difference an FBU makes for the academy, for society — for far too long. That hurt both FBUs themselves, because they failed to explore a distinct academic mission, and FBOs, who were largely left to fend on their own, without intellectual and social support of their brothers and sisters in faith.

In contrast, the proposal here can reverse that process, with service once again contributing to the faith, academic, and social missions of the university, in substantive and powerful ways, and with FBUs rising to the desperately needed social role of strengthening civil society. Universities that can explain civil society and provide rich opportunities to serve will have a huge recruitment and retention advantage against other universities. Done right — explaining how the importance of civil society, and of their own service, depends upon view of an active human subject and rejecting a simplistic determinism — university emphasis on service as part of civil society can embody and validate the FBU’s general academic approach. Done well, particularly by supporting FBOs, this can be an effective strategy for FBUs to obtain academic distinction, have social impact, and survive in a challenging higher education market. 

God willing, this will help many FBUs find their faith mission to be a powerful resource for the academy and society today.

In the coming year, my university, Mount St. Mary’s, will work with CPJ, professionals from the faith-based policy movement, and faculty at other faith-based universities such as Baylor to develop this initiative. If you are interested in this work please join us!


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.