Faith Based Initiatives


November 24, 2004


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With a President who touts “faith-based initiatives” as the answer to the nation’s problems, it is instructive to revisit the time when people conceived their entire communities in just those terms.

One example is Dedham, Massachusetts, which was settled by Puritans in 1636. As Kenneth A. Lockridge detailed in his graceful little book “A New England Town: The First Hundred Years” (Norton 1970) the early Dedhamites were not compartmentalizers, the way boisterous religionists today tend to be. They didn’t separate their economic strivings from the moral force field of their faith. To the contrary they deemed pecuniary lust as evil as the more strictly physical kinds, and made their economic arrangements accordingly.

These settlers refrained from grabbing all the land in their grant, for example, and left most of it a commons instead. From that they parceled out plots gradually, to families according to their need and their contributions to the community. They clustered their homes together in a central village, the better to encourage social intercourse and security as well. Their farm plots were together too, outside of town, and they worked these on a cooperative basis. Even time was deemed a kind of commons. Men in the settlement owed four days of work a year on local roads.

Such practices did not survive of course. The centrifugal pull of open land, the waning of the flame in successive generations, the entropic tendencies of human nature all played a part in doing them in. But at least these early settlers set out to be consistent in their faith. They did not cudgel those who succumb to the weakness of the flesh while celebrating those who dance with Mammon. And they grasped the kind of economic arrangements towards which genuine faith led.

What then to think about the concept of faith-based initiatives? The question calls to mind the time a reporter asked Gandhi what he thought of Western Civilization. “I think it would be a wonderful idea,” Gandhi said.