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Confronting diaphobia

Interview | Scholar David R. Hodge on spirituality and social work

Issue: "Judicial filibuster deal," June 4, 2005

David R. Hodge, a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Pennsylvania and a professor in social work at Arizona State University, has published more than 50 journal articles and other academic pieces, mostly on topics involving spirituality.

WORLD: You wrote recently about the controversy concerning "release time" programs that allow students to be excused from classes to receive off-site religious instruction during school hours.

HODGE: Apart from school choice programs, many observers view release time programs as the best option for parents wishing to provide their children with a holistic education that includes a spiritual component. But with the passage of the federal No Child Left Behind Act, local schools are under increasing pressure to raise test scores, so some school officials have prohibited release time programs, believing that excusing students from classes hinders academic achievement.

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Preliminary research, however, suggests that attending release time does not negatively affect academic test scores and may positively affect students' academic achievement by helping to instill self-discipline, cooperation, and so forth.

WORLD: Faith-based drug and alcohol treatment programs have also been questioned for purportedly not respecting "client autonomy."

HODGE: To those who hold modernistic assumptions, secular programs seem better-positioned to respect client self-determination than faith-based programs. Enlightenment-based modernists typically believe secular individuals are neutral, seeing reality impartially, while religious people are biased, viewing reality through a spiritual lens. Modernism, however, has been largely discredited. As is now widely acknowledged, no neutral ground exists from which reality can be impartially viewed. Every person views the world through a particular lens.

This means that every program "imposes" certain values upon clients: Secular programs and faith-based programs are on equal grounds in terms of their ability to respect client autonomy. My own exploratory research confirms this.

WORLD: How do social work's ethical mandates relate to a Christian worldview?

HODGE: They're highly compatible. Key values in the profession's code of ethics include social justice, the inherent dignity and worth of persons, the centrality of relationships, and service-particularly to people who are poor and disenfranchised. These values echo those held by most Christians and many other theists. This high degree of compatibility is unsurprising since evangelical Christians played a major role in founding the profession and developing its guiding values.

WORLD: How do the religious beliefs and practices of social workers compare with those of the general public?

HODGE: In contrast to professionals in many other disciplines, social workers are just as likely to report attending religious services weekly as members of the general public. The difference is in the content of their religious beliefs. As a group, social workers hold beliefs that are significantly more liberal than those held by the general public.

The most pronounced difference in beliefs occurs between social workers and members of the working and lower classes. This is somewhat ironic, since social work has historically been committed to advocating on behalf of people who are poor.

WORLD: Do those liberal beliefs foster bias toward theistic clients-and if so, how?

HODGE: In many cases, yes: The lack of diversity in social work, as well as academia in general, means that social workers are often unfamiliar with common theistic values. For instance, research suggests that for many theists, complementary marriages are an important family strength-but, since their understanding of theistic worldviews is distorted, some therapists may believe that complementary marriages are dysfunctional. Consequently, they may implicitly coerce couples into adopting egalitarian marriages.

WORLD: What is "diaphobia" and how does it affect the relationship between mental health professionals and evangelical Christians?

HODGE: Diaphobia is an animus toward a worldview in which a transcendent God is the ultimate point of reference. Although relatively few social workers would be considered diaphobic, diaphobia may help explain textbook comments that "Christian values are a cornerstone of racism," or that religious conservatives are spearheading a "war against the poor."

Here's one extreme example: Those who believe that Jesus engaged in a homosexual relationship with the apostle John supposedly have a living, dynamic Christian faith, while those who believe in traditional sexual morality have rigid, moralistic beliefs similar to those of the Pharisees that murdered Christ. As future mental health practitioners assimilate these negative characterizations, it affects their ability to provide effective, unbiased services to evangelical Christians.

WORLD: Overall, does social work oppress evangelical Christians?

HODGE: Oppression is a strong word, but concern appears to be warranted. For instance, attempts have been made to de-accredit the few private Christian social work programs in the nation. In at least one state university, a formal interview process was set up to screen out students who held traditional theistic beliefs on homosexuality, such as "loving the sinner but hating the sin." The interview focused not on behaviors, or how one treated people, but personally held beliefs. In other words, the state was placed in the position of determining appropriate religious beliefs and excluding those who disagreed.

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