The Humanitarian Impulse

Fifth in a five-part series on why faith matters to society

“Many, perhaps all, of the world’s great religions teach their adherents the importance of making sacrifices for the sake of others, through charity, hospitality, visiting the sick, helping the needy, giving comfort to those in crisis, bringing moments of moral beauty into what might otherwise be harsh and lonely lives.” — Rabbi Jonathan Sacks[1]

It is hard to count the ways religion benefits society. Intangibles are what faith does best. Churches invigorate communities through local associations of support. Differences in religious worldviews enrich our common existence. Voices of moral conscience hold us to our highest ideals. And the dignity of our relationships toward one another is bolstered by human rights and religious freedom.

Behind this lies the unique responsibility of the believer. People of faith contribute to society because of their obligation to God and conscience, not out of privilege, superiority or reward.

The mettle of religious conviction is tested by how we respond to suffering. Human beings have a natural impulse to help those in need. And whether the problem is poverty, hunger or disease, people of faith feel a particular call to serve. A commitment to God looks outward to actual people. The “secret ingredient” to charitable giving among the religious, says one scholar, is “the social networks formed within religious congregations.”[2]

A life of faith is not content to be stagnant or remain in the self. One version or another of “help the poor and needy” can be found in most scriptures and heard over most pulpits. The Mormon prophet Joseph Smith captured this sentiment well: “A man filled with the love of God, is not content with blessing his family alone, but ranges through the whole world, anxious to bless the whole human race.”[3] Religious believers have a universal aim.

Our world needs all the help it can get. And it doesn’t matter who gives the most; the humanitarian enterprise is not a competition. Natural disasters, war, environmental degradation and lack of education have always been a part of the human experience. In such circumstances, people cannot take care of their own needs. Governments, nonprofit organizations, corporations, charities and philanthropists make an immense contribution. But they can’t do it all.

In many places, religious organizations are already on the ground, providing ready-to-go communication structures and delivery mechanisms. They are integrated in the local communities. Moreover, congregations in one part of the world can connect with congregations in other parts of the world and join in the same cause. What they may lack in size and funding they make up for in human capital and relationships. Churches frequently offer help before and after international aid organizations arrive.

One professional in the field said that “religious groups have made a disproportionately significant contribution” in humanitarian work.[4] There are many examples. The Catholic Church has a strong focus on education, operating one of the largest nongovernmental school systems in the world.[5] World Vision International fosters sustainable development in health care, agricultural production, water projects, literacy and micro-finance.[6] The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints provides childhood immunizations, vision treatment, wheelchair distribution, food production and nutrition initiatives in countries around the world.[7]

Faith-based aid workers put a spiritual shine of meaning and care on their work. They create conditions for solidarity and empathy that outlast any practical good. This effort saves lives and eases suffering but also brings people together and increases social trust.

In addition to organizations, regular individuals act on their faith by volunteering. Modern technology allows them to impact the lives of those who live far away. In the aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan, for example, a group of young people from the United States initiated a relief effort through social media channels. They gathered funds, traveled to the Philippines and began distributing goods and necessaries through local churches. These houses of worship became a refuge for communities. As they encountered more and more of the devastation, these volunteers relied on prayer and faith to guide them. Their efforts were small but made a difference.

Whether through individual or organizational contributions, the mission of securing human dignity requires no borders. Where faith and suffering meet, there the humanitarian impulse delivers, and “harsh and lonely lives” transform into “moral beauty.”

[1] Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, “Role of Religion in Society in the United Kingdom,”, Nov. 22, 2012.

[2] David E. Campbell, “It’s Social Ties — Not Religion — That Makes the Faithful Give to Charity,” Time, Nov. 26, 2013.

[3] History of the Church, 4:227.

[4] Fiona Fox, “Aid Would Survive Without Religion,” The Guardian, Sept. 20, 2010.

[5] Roy Gardner, Denis Lawton, and Jo Cairns, Faith Schools (2005), 148.


[7] Mormon Newsroom, “Humanitarian Aid and Welfare Services Basics: How Donations and Resources Are Used.”

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