March 3, 2009
Will Obama's Vision Sabotage Religion?
One prominent sociologists thinks it is likely.
The summary of W. Brad Wilcox's new piece in Public Discourse: Ethics, Law, and the Common Good, says:
While many social conservatives have focused attention on Obama's liberal social commitments, few have considered what effects an expanded welfare state will have on religious belief - or how these religious effects will in turn impact civic virtue, personal responsibility, altruism, or solidarity. If the European experience with the welfare state and religion is any indication, the Obama revolution could well lead the United States down the secular path already trod by Europe.
The argument is more nuanced than the summary, naturally. The most persuasive part is summed up in this way:
As political scientist Alan Wolfe observed in Whose Keeper?, one of the primary dangers associated with the rise of the nanny state is that "when government assumes moral responsibility for others, people are less likely to do so themselves." Wolfe noted that large increases in welfare spending in Sweden, Denmark and Norway over the last half century have ended up eroding the moral fabric of families and civic institutions in these societies.
Less impressive are the concerns about the relationship of socialism to religious devotion:
A recent study of 33 countries around the world by Anthony Gill and Erik Lundsgaarde, political scientists at the University of Washington, indicates that there is an inverse relationship between state welfare spending and religiosity. Specifically, they found that countries with larger welfare states had markedly lower levels of religious attendance, had higher rates of citizens indicating no religious affiliation whatsoever, and their people took less comfort in religion in general.
[Many] individuals only turn to churches, synagogues, temples, and mosques when their needs for social or material security are not being met by the market or state. In an environment characterized by ordinary levels of social or economic insecurity, many of these individuals will turn to local congregations for social, economic, and emotional support. At times of high insecurity, such as the current recession, religious demand goes even higher.
This line of argument, while no doubt accurate statistically and sociologically, cuts two ways. It makes socially conservative Christians sound like one more interest group, and an insecure one at that. As if the success of the Christian faith hinges on whether a society produces enough poverty and other forms of social instability.
I am no friend to socialism, but if indeed a state can ameliorate a large number of social problems, it seems that Christians of every political stripe might rejoice. That living in a socialist state seems to make it harder to take religion seriously not only suggests a flaw in socialism but, much more so, a serious flaw in what we promote as Christian religion. A Christianity that depends on massive social dislocation for its success is a religion we of all people would be happy to see die away.
To read more of "More Government, Less God: What the Obama Revolution Means for Religion in America," click here.