This article argues that the United States of America is quite different from other OECD countries in its religiosity (America is much more religious) and also in its public safety nets, which are considerably less generous and comprehensive than those of Europe. There are some institutional and ideological patterns in American religion that perhaps underlie both these tendencies. Patterns of religious life and practice in America may be part of the ‘problem’ in American responses to poverty; they may also, however, be part of the solution, and not simply because of gospel teaching. America is distinctive in the breadth, diversity and vitality of associations and charities, including religiously based voluntary organizations. The voluntary sector cannot replace the public sector, but it can, perhaps, provide the organizational foundation for the development of social conscience and civic dialogue, and a counter to the increasingly toxic political sphere. The voluntary sector may be the best hope for the emergence of an American social conscience, and may also provide an interesting framework for other nations to consider.