2016-07-27
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Social workers are the largest providers of mental health care in the United States. Through hospitals, child-welfare agencies and private practice, social workers act as psychotherapists, family and marriage counselors and parenting coaches. They are often the appointed liaison between government aid agencies and the public,. Working so intimately with families in need, social workers are trained to view a person's or family's problems through a clien'ts cultural or ethnic lens. Despite that training prejudices still operate. One of the most powerful is the prejudice against religious faith, particularly devout Christianity.

David Hodge, a doctoral fellow in social work at Washington University in St. Louis recently published an article in the profession's journal, Social Work, examining social workers' antagonism against evangelical Christians. Beliefnet's Paul O'Donnell talked with Hodge about the scale of the problem and what evangelicals can do about it.

You say that social workers today often come from the class of Americans variously called the knowledge class, or the "new" class, or simply the elite. What is their approach to spirituality?
It tends to be individually constructed. It's religion à la carte. People pick and choose among various components of the faith traditions. You end up with a spirituality that is different from the secularism, but has a lot in common with it. Their worldviews are humanly constructed. That contrasts with Christians or Muslims, who stand underneath their tradition and try to conform themselves to that tradition.

According to the studies you cite, the percentage of social workers who reject belief in God as a person is amazingly high.
There's one scale that asks individuals to pick from five or six different models of belief. The percentage of social workers who pick the traditional understanding of deity is something like 30 percent. That stands in contrast to the broader public, among whom about two-thirds believe in a personal God.

And the problem is not just personal belief, but a matter of education.
It was not all that long ago that mental health professionals were asked to eradicate the clients' faith, because devout faith was thought to be a manifestation of pathology. That goes back to Freud.

The irony is that social work comes out of the evangelical Christians of the 19th century.
That's right. This group that was created by the Christian tradition is now to some extent antagonistic to evangelical Christianity and some other faith perspectives. The Puritans were very involved in caring for the poor, and gradually over the course of a few hundred years, those institutions became more centralized. So people like Jane Addams and Mary Richards, the founders of social work as we know it, were clearly motivated by Christian faith in some sense. Though they are referred to now mostly as secular people.

I want to emphasize that not all social workers are antagonistic toward Christianity. It tends to be more of a clash of worldviews. Because there aren't many evangelicals in social work, people aren't aware of their concerns and values, and they don't get treated appropriately.

How does this translate in the field into discrimination against evangelicals?
A few studies have found that evangelicals consumers say social workers don't understand their values. This is a problem, because social workers are the largest provider of mental-health services in the United States. They work in hospitals, in private practice, for child protective service agencies. They are going to come across evangelicals.

What are the issues where differences are going to come up?
One area is child rearing and the family. The family is very important to evangelicals. Evangelicals, for instance, might be more likely to affirm complementary gender roles between a husband and wife, while social workers would tend to favor more egalitarian roles.

Now, the empirical evidence says that, for evangelicals anyway, complementary gender roles tend to be quite functional. They tend to have high levels of marital satisfaction, high levels of sexual satisfaction and low levels of domestic violence. The stereotype among people in the elites would be the exact opposite--that complementary gender roles would be disfunctional and result in low levels of sexual satisfaction and low levels of marital happiness and high levels of domestic abuse. There is a disconnect between what the empirical literature is showing and some of the images out there.

What it comes down to is that a social worker would be less inclined to work with a couple who wants a completmentary marriage. If a couple was experiencing tension in their marriage, there may be a desire to go to the structure of the marriage and try to change that.

Why aren't more social workers evangelical Christians?
There are a number of factors why not. Discrimination is one. In one study from 1986, a researcher sent three mock admissions applications to all the psychology doctoral programs in the United States. One was a secular application. In the second, the personal statement identified the applicant as an evangelical Christian. The third identified the applicant as an evangelical Christian who wanted to integrate their faith into the practice of psychology. The study found that the secular applications were accepted as a much higher rate than the other two.

Also there's been some hesistancy about pursuing higher education because evangelicals anticipate a hostility to their belief system.

Are things getting better?
One of the positive things about the whole shift to postmodernism is that has influenced social workers to examine a client's faith perspective, and a growing movement that says yes, we need to respect the client's beliefs.

Meanwhile, what options do evangelicals have?
In some places, it's just going to be difficult. If the social worker is from child-protective services coming to visit an evangelical family, the family doesn't have much choice. They can explore where that social worker is coming from, and if they feel uncomfortable with that person that can ask to be served by somebody else. Most social workers are pretty open to that. If they realize there is a conflict in values they will refer the case to someone else in the agency. In almost any situation, social workers are pretty good about different culture and values. But again, the social worker may not be trained to think about that first, so the onus may be on the evangelical client to address that situation.

How does all this effect the administration's planned support for faith-based social programs
I think it has the potential to help. The trouble is there are a lot of stipulations to the government funds, so I'm not sure how many evangelical service providers will avail themselves. Vouchers may be a better way to go, empowering clients to choose the services they want.

Is pastoral counseling becoming an answer?
I haven't done any studies, but there does seem to be a shift within evangelicalism over the last 20 or 30 years, with the rise of the therapeutic culture, of seminaries offering counseling programs.

Are other religious populations effected?
Many of the major faith traditions tend to be quite similar in terms of their values, especially in the theistic faiths. You have Hindus coming to the United States, and they have a great deal of similarity with evangelicals in terms of their family life. This goes for Muslims and Mormons as well. There's less potential for conflict with Buddhists for elites. You can see it in Hollywood--Muslims tend to be portrayed quite negatively, but Buddhists are portrayed more positively.

What can social workers themselves do?
Already they've opened up a dialogue about the issue, and long term it would be helpful if they took a look at diversity in terms of belief systems. They should take a look at leadership, and make sure the profession comes to reflect the population. A large chunk of discrimination against African-Americans at one time was the result of a lack of African-Americans in leadership positions.

Are these prejudices more serious today than in the past?
Only in that in the last half century so society has been reshaped. The federal government used to play a much smaller role, and so social workers didn't have as much influence. And television was much less present. Today, people don't meet people different from themselves. They only encounter other cultures in the media. And if that media image is negative, it profoundly shapes how you interact with others.

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