The United States is at a crossroads as it becomes increasingly clear that a proper understanding of society is impossible without an appreciation for the powerful religious dynamic that affects the attitudes and behavior of the populace. A recent study conducted by the George H. Gallup International Institute shows that Americans’ concerns about society, democracy, and the future are deeply rooted in their beliefs about God. Evidence of the power of the religious dynamic can be seen in the fact that a solid majority (61 percent) of respondents say that a democracy cannot survive without a widespread belief in God or a supreme being. Among opinion leaders there is a rising tide of interest in matters spiritual and a willingness to acknowledge the importance of religion for the good of both the individual and society.
Religion in the U.S. and Abroad
One need look only at the landscape of the United States to discover the importance of the First Amendment for both the prominence and diversity of religion in our nation: nearly 500,000 churches, temples, and mosques exist for no fewer than 2000 denominations (not including countless independent churches and faith communities).
Clearly, the United States is a “churched” nation. Moreover, judging from non-survey data reported by Roger Finke and Rodney Stark in The Churching of America, the last fifty years have been the most churched in the nation’s history. Levels of attested belief are extraordinarily high, as virtually all Americans say they believe in God or a universal spirit. Many say they have felt the presence of God at various points in their lives, while a vast majority believe that the Bible is either the literal or inspired word of God.
Prayer has significant meaning for many Americans, and organized religion rates near the top of key institutions that elicit respect in society. A consistent four in ten attend church or synagogue weekly, while three-fourths of Americans say that religion either currently is, or at some earlier point was, important in their lives. Though 56 percent are churched (defined here as people who are members of a church or have attended services within the previous six months other than for special religious holidays), the churched and unchurched are in a constant state of flux. In fact, half of the currently unchurched say there is a good chance that they can be brought back into the community of active worshippers.
The United States is one of the most religious nations of the entire industrialized world, in terms of attested religious beliefs and practices. And though we generally see an inverse correlation between levels of religious commitment and levels of education across the globe, the United States is unique in that it has a high level of each at the same time.
Overseas as well, the vast majority of people adhere to some religion, with most continuing to believe in a supreme being or universal spirit. According to the World Development Forum, a representative global village of 1000 would include: 300 Christians (183 Catholics, 84 Protestants, 33 Orthodox), 175 Muslims, 128 Hindus, 55 Buddhists, 47 Animists, 210 without any confessed religion, and 85 from miscellaneous religious groups. One of the most dramatic examples of the persistence of religious belief derives from Gallup surveys conducted in Eastern Europe: despite nearly half a century of suppression, most measures reveal little apparent difference in religious attitudes and behavior when compared with Western Europe.
Examining Gallup international trends as well as census data, we can draw a few broad conclusions:
Most people believe in God or a universal spirit and report being identified with some church or faith.
Beliefs are strongest among people in Africa (sub-Sahara), Latin America, and North America, somewhat less so in the Far East, and considerably less so in Western Europe.
Though belief in God or a universal spirit has been declining in a number of countries since a 1948 Gallup survey, as has a belief in immortality, these trends have leveled out in recent years.
The Impact of Religion
The religious impact on global events and policy needs much deeper exploration. While levels of attested belief are impressively high, we need to know more about the depth of conviction, to develop sensitive measurements of spiritual fitness and wellness, and to explore differences between healthy and unhealthy religion.
The Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies has produced a study stating that religion has been systematically neglected as a factor in international affairs, as reported in the book, Religion, the Missing Dimension of Statecraft (edited by Douglas Johnston and Cynthia Sampson). The study faults, not only the underestimation of religious differences as a possible source of conflict, but also the neglect of religious institutions as catalysts in ending warfare or bringing about peaceful democratic change.
There should be more effort worldwide to measure the impact of religion on the individual and on society, such as that of Patrick F. Fagan of the Heritage Foundation. In an article titled “Why Religion Matters: The Impact of Religious Practice on Social Stability,” he discusses the contribution of religion to the welfare of the nation, noting positive social consequences ranging from the strengthening of the family unit to the inoculation of individuals against a host of social problems (such as suicide, drug abuse, and crime).
For years, the Princeton Religion Research Center has reported the close connection between religion and individual and societal health, concluding:
Religious feelings have spurred much of the volunteerism in our nation. Members of a church or synagogue, as revealed in a Gallup Poll, tend to be much more involved in charitable activity than non-members.
Seventy-four percent of adults say religion in their homes has strengthened family relationships, while 82 percent say that religion was important in their homes when they were growing up.
Eight in ten Americans report that religious beliefs help them to respect and assist other people.
While only 4 percent say their beliefs have little or no effect on their lives, 63 percent state that their beliefs keep them from doing things they know they should not do.
In sum, the religious liberty most Americans cherish and celebrate has enabled religion to flourish in many forms and to become a profound shaper of the American character.
Two Levels of Religion
To assess the impact of religion in America, it is necessary to examine religion on two levels: surface religion (such as being religious for social reasons) versus deep transforming faith (perhaps best measured by the way faith is lived out in service to others). Though religion has clearly helped shape America in distinctly positive terms, when we use measurements to probe the depth of our religious conviction, we become less impressed, at least in terms of traditional religion. We are frequently guilty of religious ignorance, extending to a lack of awareness and understanding of our religious traditions and the central doctrines of our faith. And at the level of deep religious commitment, there exist extraordinary differences in individuals’ outlook, charitable activity, and happiness. Only a small segment of the population, the “hidden saints,” is strongly religiously committed, but their influence in society is far out of proportion with their numbers.
To build upon the clear connection between religion and social health, society has several options. Congress, writes Fagan, should take an active role through such projects as leading a national debate on the renewed role of religion in America and affirming the importance of data on religious practice in this country. The president, Fagan further proposes, should appoint judges who are sensitive to the role of religion in public life.
Moreover, we must encourage politicians to get beyond a utilitarian approach to religion. Indeed, we should not think of religion as it relates to the individual and society as simply a form of social engineering, a useful device to keep society in order. We are to start with God, not with man.
Lastly, the problem is far too important to be left to government-America’s religious leaders and individual citizens must act as well.
The clear need is for deepening faith, but the challenge is to be faithful to our own convictions while loving at the same time-to remain faithful yet open. This balance is difficult to maintain because we do not know a great deal about our own religious faiths, let alone other faiths. Consequently, we cannot speak out of security in our own faith, and we become emotional and defensive in dialogue with others from a different faith perspective. To avoid such altercations we say nothing, and religious faith is marginalized and ultimately generalized out of existence.
The way out of this situation can be found with the “saints” among us. Their lives show how faith can make a profound difference in lifestyles, service, and outlook. Our challenge is to produce more of these people. The incubator for “saints-to-be” could be small groups that meet regularly for the sharing of lives on a deep level, study of the Bible, and prayer. Such groups meet two of the deep needs of the American people at this time-the need to find spiritual moorings and the need for an intimate healing community.
Meanwhile, the world still waits to see how truly transformed men and women can truly transform society.