March 8, 2012
According to a recent survey, church goers in America came out ahead of non-church goers in their charitable donations. Individuals who are religious and practice their faith also volunteer and engage more frequently in random acts of kindness. (Cf. Robert D. Putnam and David E. Campbell,
American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us, 2010). However, those who live in the more secularized countries were four times less likely to engage in volunteerism (S. Ruiter and N. D. De Graaf, “National Contest, Religiosity, and Volunteering: Results from 53 Countries,”
American Sociological Review 71, No. 2, 2006).
In America, those who attend church weekly make up approximately 24% of the population. Yet, they account for almost half of all contributions made to charities. This means that church-goers give two and one-half times as much as those who do not attend church regularly. (cf. David Myers, “Godliness and Goodliness,”
Sightings, April 11, 2001).
Church goers are the most benevolent people of our society. Their charity supports those whose needs fall through the empty spaces in government run programs. The list of those who depend on the goodness of others is long. Young people over eighteen who no longer qualify for state care. Children with disabilities whom secular adoption agencies have little success in placing. Immigrants, hard-working and family-oriented, in need of medical assistance. Elderly unable to live on a fixed income. All of these benefit from the charity of church goers who prove to be the best of neighbors. They are valued citizens until they begin to discuss politics.
So often it is said that politics and religion do not belong together. Certainly, a delineation of the role of each is necessary and beneficial. Yet, the banishing of religion from the public forum makes no sense. In fact, all the good that religious people do to help others is, in itself, a proof against the campaign to banish religion from the public arena.
Compared to other industrialized nations, such as Italy, Canada, Germany, and France, America is more religious. America may be religiously diverse, but America is deeply devout. Religion plays a major role in people’s lives, even in the lives of those who are not regular church goers.
To arrive at a point where it is no longer possible to speak publicly about religion would be to deny something that plays a significant role in the lives of so many. Yet, the media would have us believe otherwise. Let a public figure, be it a sports person or a politician, publicly admit their own religious beliefs and the media makes them a target of criticism. The media would have us believe that such individuals are on the fringe of society.
In the concrete circumstance of everyday life, religion cannot be isolated from life, including the public life of the nation. Religion provides believers with a code of behavior. It has much to say about a morality that is rooted in human nature as created by God. Religion is not simply about the way to get to heaven. It is intensely about the way to live with each other in justice and charity on earth. Therefore, a truly religious person never espouses moral principles as if these principles were not applicable to public policy and government action. Today, in America, this is where the tension between religion and government is most acutely felt. The resolution of this tension hinges on a single question. Who is the arbiter of right and wrong?
In our era of instant communication and constant poll-taking, there is a strong tendency to make the view of the majority the judge of right and wrong. As that view changes, so does what is right and wrong. Polls can provide a snapshot of the social conscience at a given time. But polls cannot dictate morals. “…For the fundamental issues of law, in which the dignity of man and of humanity is at stake, the majority principle is not enough: everyone in a position of responsibility must personally seek out the criteria to be followed when framing laws” (Pope Benedict XVI,
The Listening Heart: Reflections on the Foundations of Law, Reichstag Building Berlin, September 22, 2011).
For example, in the 1800’s, the majority of American citizens accepted slavery. They held that blacks were somehow inherently inferior to whites. Even our Supreme Court supported this notion. The majority was wrong. The vocal minority, the Abolitionists, were right. Why? Because they grounded their understanding in the dignity of the human person as taught by religion. Do away with religion from the public forum, banish religion from political decisions, and what are the consequences?
History provides a ready answer to that question. Within the memories of people alive today, there are imbedded the images of the mass slayings, forced labor camps and firing squads of the Nazi regime. The Nazis targeted the churches and synagogues as the strongest opposition to their ideology. They banned the celebration of Christmas, silenced any preacher who did not agree with them and shut down religious schools and charitable organizations. The government that they created was virulently secular. There was no place for the practice of any religion that did not conform to their world view. The tragic result: ten million people, including six million Jews, were wiped out.
The Church does not promote one political system over another. “Unlike other great religions, Catholicism has never proposed a revealed law to the State and to society, that is to say a juridical order derived from revelation. Instead, the Church has [always] pointed to nature and reason as the true sources of law” (
Basing her teaching for the common good on nature and reason, the Church consistently points to those moral values that are grounded in our human dignity as persons and are, therefore, universal and not limited to a particular time and place. However, let the state become the arbiter of right and wrong, and soon the standard of good and evil will quickly fit the ideology of the group in power at the moment. Let religion have its proper place at the table, and there will be present the principles that demand justice, inspire charity and lead to peace. Religion will always be a needed partner in the public forum.