Faith, Social Justice, and Public Health

How does faith relate to public health?

Studies have found that religious beliefs and practices can have a positive or negative effect on a person’s health at the personal level.

There is also a rich tradition of faith communities serving as health care providers and health promoters. For example, every day, more than 1 out of every 7 patients in the U.S. is cared for in a Catholic hospital. Many houses of worship and faith also provide essential human and community services - including food and housing. The Sikh tradition of langar - the practice of preparing and serving a free meal to all who want it - illustrates this ideal. Others help to promote healthy behaviors among the members of their congregations and their neighbors.

A third way, which hasn't received as much attention, is when faith partners act as agents of healthy public policy change. By changing policies, systems, and environments, people of faith can have a big impact on the health and well-being of their neighborhoods - and beyond.

And while it may seem like a new idea to some, in fact many of the world's great faith traditions have teachings which strongly support action in favor of social justice and public health.

These traditions include the Adventist Health Message; Buddhist dharma; the preferential option for the poor of Catholic social teaching; the Franciscan pursuit of Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation (JPIC); Hindu lokasamgraha and seva; the zakat and sadaqah of Islam; the Jewish practices of tikkun olam, darkhei shalom, hessed, and tzedakah; the Protestant Social Gospel and African-American civil rights legacy; diverse ecosystem-rooted concepts of health in Native American belief systems; the seva of Sikhism; and many other faith teachings.

This can make faith communities powerful allies for public health.