Seeking to understand the role of religion in community development and to evaluate current perspectives on religion in public schools, Elliott Wright of the General Board of Global Ministries of the United Methodist Church initiated this two-year study in 1992. Wright explained the role of religion in community development through a study of seven out of a total of twenty-eight projects funded by the Lilly Endowment Inc., (LEI) for the purpose of organizing community based development, primarily in housing. The funding for the community development projects began in 1989.
Wright brings out a number of factors behind the greater visibility of community based development in the programs of denominations such as the Episcopal Church, and the Presbyterians and the United Methodists in the early 1990s. LEI’s Religious Institutions Program mentioned above was one of those. Simultaneously, several similar agencies such as the World Vision housing program assisted by Pew Charitable Trusts, and the Black Church Project of the Ford Foundation, got involved in community based development. Denominational agencies saw their involvement as a form of outreach ministry.
Of the seven LEI funded community development projects Wright investigated, almost all were led by individuals who thought of themselves as “in ministry”. Each of the projects depended in large measure on the work provided by volunteers; for some, voluntary participation was a matter of religious commitment, for others it was civic responsibility. Wright observed both of these factors at work often within the same project, even in a particular individual involved with the project.
The second component of this study reviewed current perspectives on religion in public schools. Wright observed that the issue of religion in American public schools belongs more to the history of American culture than to histories of religion or education. Public education in America was a product of Protestant culture historically. Only with the advent of multicultural ethos and the challenge to “Protestant hegemony” does one see the issue of issue of religion coming to the fore in American public education. Current discussions mostly centered on “teaching about religion” although there is a growing concern about “values” in education. The modernist concern seeks value education through character education without reference to any particular religion; the traditional approach seeks to inculcate values through exposure to moral heroism.
Wright views the public education and religion situation as a window to the unfolding of American ethnic, racial, social, religious, and cultural pluralism in recent years.