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Religious Are Key to American Revival

For years, one of the few stereotypes acceptable in polite company was that of the ignorant American Christian. Obama’s “bitter clingers” comments were only the tip of the iceberg. Below the water line, newsrooms and lecture halls around the country are rife with complaints about the backwards religious Americans in the heartland who add to any number of social ills, from poor educational attainment to bigotry to poverty.

In an excellent Forbes piece, Joel Kotkin takes on this pernicious notion. Not only are the religious not contributors to American social dysfunction; they tend to score better on metrics like education and personal well-being:

Many in the pundit class identify religion as something of a regressive tendency, embraced by the less enlightened, the less skilled, intelligent and educated. Yet some scholars, such as Charles Murray, point out that religious affiliation is weakening most not among the middle and upper classes but among the poorer and less educated who traditionally looked to churches for succor and moral instruction. Secularism may have not hurt the uber-rich or the academic overclass so far, but it appears to have helped expand our lumpenproleteriat.

Some might be surprised to learn that religious affiliation grows with education levels. A new University of Nebraska study finds that with each additional year of education, the odds of attending religious services increased by 15%. The educated, the study found, may not be eschewing religion, as social science has long maintained, even if their spiritual views tend to be less narrow, and less overtly tied to politics, than among the less schooled.

The benefits of religion also have an economic component:

Where churches are closing down, most particularly in core urban areas such as Boston or Manhattan, as well as their metropolitan regions, singletons and childless couples are increasing. In more religiously oriented metropolitan areas like Houston, Dallas-Fort Worth, Salt Lake City and Phoenix, the propensity to have children is 15% to nearly 30% higher (as measured by the number of children under the age of 5 per woman of child bearing age– 15-49).

In the future, many high-income societies, whether in East Asia, Europe or North America, may find that religious people’s fecundity is a necessary counterforce to rapid aging and eventual depopulation of the more secular population . The increasingly perilous shape of public finance in almost all advanced countries — largely the result of rapid aging and diminished workforces — can be ascribed at least in part to secularization’s role in falling birthrates.

The evidence so far suggests that a less godly society is not a happier or higher-functioning one.

America’s distinct form of benign secularism — that the government is friendly to all religions without promoting any one over the others and without challenging the rights of those who choose no religion at all — looks even more sensible in the light of this evidence. Efforts by contemporary secular zealots to impose something more, well, French on this country, with an aggressive effort to drive religious organizations and ideas out of the public sphere, are unknowingly attacking the foundations of American prosperity and freedom.

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  • Anthony

    “…that the government is friendly to all religions without promoting any one over the others and without challenging the rights of those who choose no religion at all….” Reads like a sound basis for secular/sectarian coexistence in plural society – i.e. America.

  • Mrs. Davis

    Attendance at religious services is beneficial at a minimum for reminding attendees for at least one hour per week that they are not the center of the universe.

  • Jim.

    The fact that the “French”-style secularists have made steady gains in the legal system of this country over the last two generations, none of which have been erased by subsequent legislation or court decisions, shows that America’s system is not so “benign” as all that.

    The pendulum has swung to far in the secular direction. We need to swing it back.

  • JRR

    Dr. Mead is a deep thinker, always very thoughtful in his pronouncements. But he somehow seems to equate religion with church, and seems respectful of those that advocate a strong role for religion in the public square! Leaders that introduce religion into the public square are indeed demagogues, appealing to the ignorent and the uneducated – the bible and guns crowd! Citizens who advocate a firewall between religion and public life are not anti-religious! We are a Christian nation that lets other religions thrive, so long as they don’t preach or advocate illegal or anti-soial actions. Religion a personal choice – and believers who don’t wear their relgion on their sleeves are not anti-religions!

  • Kenny

    ” an aggressive effort to drive religious organizations and ideas out of the public sphere, are unknowingly attacking the foundations of American prosperity and freedom.”

    Exactly right, Mr. Mead, exactly right.

  • frank speaking

    religious affiliation is NOT a metric that has any value in determining religiousity—just more Tea Bag Republican Party obfuscation

    “…religious affiliation…is weakening most not among the middle and upper classes but among the poorer and less educated…”

    as one might expect as they are the ones being abandoned by the social compact.

  • Jim.

    @JRR-

    It’s laughable to think that there’s any legal stigma against organizations (Hollywood in particular) that clearly preach anti-social and illegal behavior.

    The rest of your argument similarly ignores reality. This country has moved much too far from its religious roots, driven that way by moral systems that are given a pass by our (misinterpreted) laws because they don’t carry the “religion” tag.

    The deficiencies of that system are becoming more and more apparent. Something is going to have to change.

  • vanderleun

    Let’s make that “The” Religious Are…

    Just so it doesn’t look and read so clumsily.

  • Corlyss

    On the board I used to run with a friend, I repeatedly offered up stats to the effect of Kotkin’s, only to be inundated with liberal accusations that the stats were lies generated by proponents of faith. There’s no discussing public policy with people who meet every challenge with “it’s a lie,” who don’t offer any proof of their assertions. People generally dismiss any fact that does not substantiate a preconceived notion. Most people like to think they change their opinions when the facts change. That’s a lot rarer than supposed. They simply ignore facts they don’t like.

  • Richard S

    It might be worth noting here that Jefferson’s famous “Virginia Statute Establishing Religious Liberty” declares that we are “well aware . . . that Allmighty God hath create the mind free.” To Jefferson, that was a self-evident truth. It, like other such truths, was inside the “wall of separation” about which he wrote in 1803.
    To do what Mr. Mead suggests, the U.S. needs to return to that understanding of the roots of the American republic.
    P.S. If nationhood is primarily understood to be cultural, America is a Christian nation. But if American nationhood is primarily understood to be political, it is best understood as a nation based upon the self-evident truths of 1776.
    The trouble is, the bigger the state, the harder it is to separate culture from politics–unless one believes that History is killing off religion, that could cause trouble.

  • http://facingzionwards.blogspot.com/ Luke Lea

    One major weakness of religion in America I would like to point out is the lack of intelligent, well-educated spokesmen, Mead, Kotkin, and a few others excepted. T.V preachers are an especially egregious example. They might as well be working for the devil in so far as their impact on the public perception of religion is concerned. Imagine you are a child from a secular household and these figures are your only exposure to American religion. The irony, or one of them, is that the Ivy League universities, those bastions of unbelief, were all originally founded to train the clerisy which is now so conspicuously absent.

    As for remedies, I would begin by advocating Bible study as an integral part of the public school history curriculum on the grounds that it is a primary document in our culture and civilization. The issue is not belief or even understanding. The issue is knowledge.

  • thibaud

    As with most discussions of religion’s role in social and economic life, this one verges too far too one extreme. The relationship between secularism and fertility rates is much more complex. In Europe, the sharpest decrease in fertility over the last few decades has occurred in the much more religious societies of the South, especially Italy, Spain and Greece. The home of the Roman Catholic Church has the lowest birthrate in the world – 1.3, iirc.

    At the same time, the highest fertility rates in Europe are found in not just Ireland but also Scandinavia and France. These are nations that have nothing in common when it comes to religion – in fact, France and the Scandinavians are the most secular in Europe, and most couples don;t even bother to get married.

    But fertility rates in France and Sweden esp. are relatively high and increasing, in large measure because of pro-family, pro-child social policies championed by their interventionist governments.

    America could use more pro-family government intervention, especially as regards maternity/paternity leave, tax policies, universal health insurance and a better work-life balance in the corporate sector. As to Europe, it’s not clear that an increase in the fertility rate would follow from an increase in religiosity. It’s complicated.

  • Spiro Milhous

    “…religious affiliation…is weakening most not among the middle and upper classes but among the poorer and less educated…”

    And the reason is this:

    “They make the laws to chain us well
    The clergy dazzle us with heaven, or they damn us into hell
    We will not worship the God they serve,
    a God of greed who feeds the rich while poor folk starve”

  • Buddyg04

    Emerging trend watch: “I’m not religious, I’m spiritual” is an expression migrating from the mystic fringe of society to the inner city core.

  • john werneken

    My guess was that those poorly disposed towards religion and its social utility might have had a good word for science, evolution, etc, but apparently I (as not uncommonly) was mistaken. I think most that endures as social convention has its intrinsic rewards, potentially helps sustain societies, and typically has practical and moral uses for individuals as they may seek inner peace, acceptance (both directions, by society/of society) and probably seek moral and material progress for themselves within their society, and frequently more righteous conduct towards their fellows as well.

    I trust I am not mistaken for the apocryphal Greek tourist, to whom all pantheons were equivalent. Yet if the believers are human, must not common needs conditions desires and questions be addressed? If American rural agricultural Protestantism may have a reputation as aloof or out of touch with the latest trends, these folks too have often been rather on the short sharp end of the Divide-And-Rule spear. I don’t blame any reluctance they might have to become cheerleaders for all aspects of 21st Century America.

    Mead tends to put the horse first: certain beliefs supported institutions which made possible a concept of greater freedom and prosperity, and which provided dna for institutions which supported this work in practical terms. Anglo-American protestant social and economic thought is a big part of modernity’s foundation. The rural communities may still have some competitive advantages, newly reborn. Less dense population and shorter internal travel whether physically of goods or otherwise towards consensus or decision. Hence potential toleration for diversity, and perhaps a more attractive geo-biological environment.

    The different has ever been feared or demonized; originally diseases, potential competitive advantages, and probable hostility provided more than sufficient reason. That’s one tradition we could cut back on, fear of and malice towards the stranger. To bad that the heir of those I marched with for greater tolerance, often at serious personal risk, seem uncertain as to what tolerance and diversity really are, or are for.

    As to whether any of us are “godless”, I have difficulty imagining humans deciding that God may only go so far and no farther. Whether those folks are “key”, I don’t know. At some point we shall need to make some national or supra-national or free economic decision – SOME kind of decisions – and address some of our issues, before they re-address us, and the the ‘dead letter’ office.

  • NG

    Mr. Mead, if you actually believe this tripe you wrote, I suggest you read the source you’ve decided to selectively quote. And I quote:

    “…the study found higher levels of education eroded Americans’ viewpoints that their specific religion is the ‘one true faith’ and that the Bible is the literal word of God….And while more highly educated Americans were somewhat less likely to definitely believe in God, it’s because some of them believed in a higher power, not because they were particularly likely to not believe at all.”

  • Ken Puck

    This situation is self-correcting. Religious people have many children, while seculars, who don’t believe in marriage, have none or one. A couple of decades from now, Mormons and Assembly of God adherents will run this country. The unchurched and deracinated will be depopulated. And that will be a good thing.

  • mlindroos

    > Secularism may have not hurt the
    > uber-rich or the academic overclass
    > so far, but it appears to have helped
    > expand our lumpenproleteriat.
    […]
    > Where churches are closing down,
    > most particularly in core urban
    > areas such as Boston or Manhattan,
    > as well as their metropolitan regions,
    > singletons and childless couples are
    > increasing.

    So we should blame the Godless for dysfunctional familities and falling birthrates, huh? This is a bit like saying heterosexual marriages were far less likely to end in divorce as long as homosexuality was kept illegal!

    Correlation is NOT causation. To me it seems far more likely that religious indifference is the result of other social and demographic trends. Mead’s quote about “religiously oriented metropolitan areas” is particularly misleading except for Utah. The remaining ones have many children thanks to their Latino and African American minorities! These Democratic-leaning voter blocs are undoubtedly more religious and socially conservative than the average upscale latte-sipping social-liberal voter. Trying to untangle the differences between these two groups and the causes and consequences is bound to be extremely difficult indeed.

    BTW, Murray seems to think the root of the decline of the white working class is almost purely related to “declining morals” and that changing economic or technological factors (e.g. the pill, the impact of TV & the internet) have little to do with it. I suspect it is a combination of many things, really.

    MARCU$

  • Luap Leiht

    I’m just thankful that we have such morally upright leaders who’s mission to prevent Bob and Steve from getting married. At the same time, they send our children to war and sell them into debt slavery.

  • Paul

    The value of religion to a democratic society was understood and argued as far back as Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy In America. He made the intuitive observation that, in America, the almost universally adopted spirit of religion – particularly the self-regulating Christian values and morality of the people – offered a unique governor against the dangers of unfettered capitalism while allowing its benefits to fuel the success of a nation. This combination, he argued, was a safeguard for individual freedom and opportunity.
    We all know the remarkable historical results from that combination, but the Progressive movement in the U.S. over the last century has sought to replace those self-regulating values with legal regulations which they, because of their higher capability and intellect, can better formulate and control. Christians, Jews and Muslims all know the story of the Tower of Babel and understand its message that Man cannot replace or match God. It seems that Progressives cannot make the quantum leap to understand and accept God, and they would not care to do so anyway.
    So instead, today we watch Progressives pile regulation upon regulation in a feverish and frustrated attempt to manage the world “better”. When they fall short – and they always do – they assuage their disappointment and frustrations by aggressively working through the media and popular culture to diminish and dilute people and ideas of faith.
    This trend will reverse, as all trends eventually do. And when it does, it will be because the Progressive’s chronic failure to construct a new Tower of Babel, as it were, will cause people to reject those secular doctrines and seek answers elsewhere. We are seeing signs of that shift today, as differences sharpen and consensus evaporates. The role of faith in our nation seems about to change.

  • Jim.

    @thibaud-

    A couple of relevant facts to blow out your arguments…

    In France, it’s illegal to take actuarial information based on race. The birthrate you cite for France includes its religious (Muslim) immigrant population.

    In Sweden, those generous benefits you cite were a temporary measure, inspiring women across the spectrum of childbearing years to have two children back-to-back, leading to a spike in births. As the fraction of those mothers in their 20’s move into their 30’s, it’s unlikely they will repeat that burst of fertility, dropping numbers back down again.

    The fact is, secularism and libertine implications (not to mention its ham-fisted use of government to arbitrarily benefit preferred groups at everyone else’s expense) are profoundly anti-human in the long run.

    We’re better off sticking to our religious traditions, thanks.

  • thibaud

    Jim – nice try, but not quite. Spain and Italy too have sizable and growing muslim populations, and those nations’ birthrates have fallen off of a cliff.

    The data simply do not support a contention that religiosity is the only or even the key driver of fertility rates. As even the Swedish example shows, it’s complicated: economic calculations are crucial to child-bearing decisions, which is why countries with high religiosity that experience severe economic dislocation (eg Poland) will have birthrates similar to their secular neighbors who share their economic situation (eg Russia).

    Not sure what’s provoking your sarcasm, but you might try snarking less and pondering more about the key fact, which you ignore, that the cradle of Catholicism is now experiencing not a low, or a very low, but THE LOWEST birthrate in the world. Ditto for Spain and Greece, both of which are far more religious than France.

    Stick to whatever traditions you like in your views on the supernatural, but in your discussions of policy, please stick to the facts. As I say, they’re complicated.

  • Bebe

    Perhaps you might leave the religious commentary to your journal associate, Peter Berger, with better effect.

  • mlindroos

    Jim,

    Has ANY modern society managed to successfully fuse “individualism” for the masses and “family values?” I very much doubt it… The social conservatism of the 19th century very much favored the strong, the wealthy and the ruthless. Don’t try to tell me women and blacks were better off before voting rights were extended.

    Opinion polls indicate Scandinavians are as “individualistic” as anyone in the world. As in the United States, the net result is an increasing share of the population has decided to live alone, in single person households. The Swedes have a policy of providing state support for single women and sexual minorities who want to raise children. So who is doing better? Even children born to cohabiting (unmarried) heterosexual parents in Sweden stand a lesser chance of experiencing their parents breaking up than children born to married parents in the US!

    The cluelessness of mainstream US social conservatives never ceases to amaze me. It is certainly possible to devise a social order where men, women and children face harsh penalties ranging from ostracism to capital punishment for breaking various “anti family values” related social taboos. Everyone from the Amish to Muslim fundamentalists do it, but only through local government coercion. You cannot have “family values” in a society where materialism, greed and the rights of the individual trump everything else. The modern “Swedish model” recognizes this whereas contemporary U.S. social conservatism does not.

    MARCU$

  • Lavaux

    Regarding social capital, there’s no better place to pick some up than at a church. And if you’re in business, social capital means custom. Keep going to church, and you become a better person if for no other reason, you can’t misbehave while you’re there. Don’t forget to take the kids.

    As for religion fixing social ills, I ponder whether it really does so or whether it provides a big carpet under which to sweep them. More thought on this is required.

    From 30,000 feet, it seems to me that America’s biggest problem is that everyone wants a share of the profits but nobody wants to share in the risk and hard work required to create them. People have always been this way, but for one brief moment in human history, America allowed the risk takers and hard workers to keep most of what they created so that they could create more. The rest of us who took no risks other than working for these people earned our share. That moment is now drawing to a close, and along with it America’s demise has begun. By demise, I mean that America is becoming less exceptional and more like everywhere else in that we’ll take the wages we earn and the seed corn, too.

    Is there something in our Christian heritage that can forestall the demise? I think so, but for every voice that cries it out, ten more join the chorus to drown it out. Sorry to be a kill-joy, but that’s how things look to this skeptic, that is, realist.

  • Espresso Mike

    If I think about it–families are growing with Evangelicals and Hispanics (Catholics).
    I live in an area of SoCal that is full of churches–that busts the stereo type that “whites” aren’t willing to work. I am hispanic and I see my neighbors with big families and unafraid to do labor work– working at Del Taco, WalMart and the local donut shop down the street!

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