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New BPC/Harris Polling Data on Religion and Child Welfare

In an era defined by deep polarization, the groundbreaking Harris Poll commissioned by the Bipartisan Policy Center suggests a remarkable – and encouraging – degree of consensus among Americans when it comes to key issues in child welfare.

As one would expect, the poll’s extensive data finds some distinct inclinations among various sub-groups, but the far more surprising news is the extent of shared values and common ground across Americans of all stripes. People of devout religious faith are no exception. While diverging here and there from their less religious neighbors, their opinions track closely with the broad consensus shared by most Americans. When differing, they reflect these consensus values with heightened passion and personal commitment.

Religious Commitment and Personal Service

Research consistently finds religious faith and practice to be highly connected to giving and service of all kinds, including child welfare.

While under 40% of Americans attend church services weekly, 65% of foster parents do. Barna Research found that practicing Christians are twice as likely to foster or adopt than the general population. They are also more likely to welcome sibling groups, older youth, and children with special needs.

Faith-motivated individuals support child welfare and other needs in an array of ways, including giving at significantly higher rates to both faith-based and non-religious charities. Faith communities also provide critical material, emotional, and spiritual support to adoptive, foster, kinship, and biological families. More than 40% of congregations offer some form of organized foster and/or adoption support, and many more provide some form of this help organically. Many churches provide extensive support to biological families who may have experience with child welfare as well, from material needs to childcare to addiction recovery communities and more. Indeed, in some parts of the U.S., the faith community may be the sole source of such supports to families.

BPC’s Harris Poll confirmed this: People for whom religion plays a major role in life are nearly 50% more likely than those with minimal religious commitments to be familiar with the child welfare system. People rooted in deep faith play an indispensable role in child and family welfare, from foster parenting to volunteering as CASAs to supporting biological families. Their voices are critical in efforts toward bipartisan improvements in child welfare.

Highly Religious Individuals Hold Views Similar to Most Americans, Only Moreso

Overall, religious Americans, like most Americans, believe that parents bear the primary responsibility for children, but also affirm that the government can play an important, if limited, role in child welfare.

For example, when asked about the tension between parental authority and government interest in child wellbeing, a solid majority of all Americans emphasize the role of parents over government. This includes those who are minimally religious (by a margin of 54% to 40%) and moderately religious (58% to 38%).  Those who are highly religious are even more committed to this shared value, at 62% to 33%.

The polling data further bears out this general alignment of perspectives between religious individuals and the broader consensus of Americans on topics ranging from when an investigation is warranted, what evidence of harm is needed to make a report, and a belief that when in doubt as to whether a child may be experiencing harm, the system should err on the side of investigating reports.

BPC also conducted a survey among the 2,000+ participants at the Christian Alliance for Orphans Summit in fall 2023, where 89% cited that religion plays a large role in their life. Results mirrored those of the Harris Poll on many fronts, including a strong sense of hope that biological parents can provide safe care when well supported, and consensus perspectives on the primary role of the child welfare system and reasons why child neglect and abuse occur.

Religious People Hold Competing Values in Tension

Significantly, on several polling questions, highly religious individuals were more likely to appear at both ends of the spectrum of answers. This reminds us that the faith community is not a monolithic bunch: two people with strong commitments to the same religion may yet hold differing beliefs on policy questions.

But these seemingly opposing convictions also point to a deeper reality and a critical element for engaging the faith community in bipartisan policymaking: faith can yield strong commitments to both sides. This commitment to seemingly opposite values is, in fact, essential in many expressions of religion, perhaps especially in the Abrahamic tradition. Believers hold deep confidence in both God’s justice and God’s mercy; they tend to see vividly the dark potential for human evil as well as great hope for restoration.

Very religious people are much more likely than their non-religious neighbors to believe the child welfare system can be an emblem of government overreach – by a 51% to 30% margin. And yet, they are much more likely to be willing to serve children and families within the child welfare system. As noted above, the most religious are significantly more likely than the minimally religious to be familiar with the child welfare system (59% compared to just 41%) reflecting, at least in part, their strong, personal commitment.

To some, these stances may appear contradictory. But for people of deep faith, they reflect a commitment to both realism and hope. Religious people may be highly skeptical of the government’s capacity to repair the deepest human needs or to fix society on its own, but they hold great confidence in communities, and the power of faith, hope, and love to transform lives.

This pairing of seemingly opposite convictions appears in other areas of the polling, too. For example, religious people – like the large majority of all Americans – believe that child abuse and neglect cannot be understood as merely “a product of unfortunate circumstances” alone. Whatever troubles parents may face, Americans believe mothers and fathers still bear some responsibility when their children are harmed through abuse or substantive neglect. The least religious Americans believe this by a 59% to 26% margin, and the highly religious affirm it even more robustly, at 67%.*

Highly religious individuals are also the most likely to express great hope for parents who the system has identified as neglectful or abusive, with 75% believing that “parents who’ve been neglectful can provide safe and nurturing care when provided needed supports.” Perhaps even more noteworthy, 56% of the moderately and highly religious say the same of parents who’ve abused their children, 10 points higher than the minimally religious.

Those very religious are the most likely to be wary of having child welfare agencies rely upon the relatives of parents who have been found to abuse or neglect their child (54%), but they are also most supportive of placing a child with extended relatives before placing them in foster care (93%). They also believe in providing support for relatives when they care for children, reflecting a strong commitment to family in the abiding hope that any situation can be redeemed.

For some, these data points may seem to be antithetical. But for the religiously devout, they reflect a healthy tension between two values that appear opposed yet hold deep importance.

An Essential Ingredient

These values held by people of religion and faith are an essential ingredient to child welfare in America. Including their valuable perspectives in discussions around child welfare will help create more effective, bipartisan policy-making and ultimately a system that better serves children and families.

Note: Jedd Medefind is president of the Christian Alliance for Orphans and an advisor to BPC’s Child Welfare Initiative, and Natalie Bergstrasser is the Prevention Initiative Director at Foster America.

*Responses to this question seemed to suggest that Americans believe that parents who abused or neglected their children did so to intentionally bring harm. But a closer look suggests that respondents were merely contrasting the term “intentional” (as in, a choice in which a parent plays a role and is not merely the puppet of irresistible forces) with the idea that such actions are caused entirely by “unfortunate circumstances” and thus “not the parents’ fault.” This latter proposition was rejected by the religious and non-religious alike by margins of more than 2 to 1.

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