Can religious charities take the place of the welfare state?

Americans’ declining level of religious involvement may also cripple institutions’ ability to provide wide-scale services to vulnerable populations. “While I would be hesitant to say that highly secular people are callous, it is the case that religious people, in general, do give more to charitable causes,” said Campbell, and “they are much more likely to give time than money.”

Campbell divided “secular people” into two categories: Those who are “actively secular,” meaning they’ve embraced a secular worldview that involves high levels of political and civic engagement, and the “quintessential nones,” or people who are detached from a wide range of civic, social, and religious institutions. Across demographic groups, and especially among Millennials, that latter group of Americans has been getting bigger. Right now, the government requires them to contribute tax dollars to education, hunger-prevention programs, homelessness services, and more. But, Campbell hypothesized, it’s unlikely that they’d channel that money through private institutions, religious or otherwise, in a world where Trump’s proposed cuts are in place.

At some level, this is what the debate over federal spending is all about: What should American communities look like, and how directly should they be responsible for providing for the poor and needy? “It’s an open question whether the rise of the ‘nones’ … will significantly affect religious institutions’ ability to be that hub for social engagement,” said David King, the director of Indiana’s Lake Institute, suggesting that they may grow more involved over time. “I still hold out hope that that’s actually quite possible.” Especially among Millennials, he said, he has seen evidence that Americans are more willing to get involved in their community through “common work,” or direct action on the issues they care about, rather than volunteering with or donating to institutions. As traditional charitable institutions decline, he said, this kind of communal engagement may expand.