This is a heresy against the post-modern faith in individualism and subjectivity. I claim that Church matters – not some spiritual universal Platonic form of Church, but the flesh, blood, brick, and mortar church with budgets, property committees, altar guilds, vestries, clergy, and (to quote Kazantzakis) “the full catastrophe” – even bishops. I claim that religion – not subjective spiritual feelings but religion with its stories, traditions, rituals, sordid history, and moral confusion is good for politics, not the corrupter of intrinsically good secular souls. I claim religion makes us better.
Let’s start with a bit of history. George Washington’s farewell address was a roadmap for the future of democracy. He said, “Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports." Alexis de Tocqueville concluded that America’s capacity for democracy rested on our unusual level of religiosity. Even irreverent and sometimes licentious old Ben Franklin penned an essay, “On The Necessitie Of A Publique Religion.” Parker Palmer has brought the notion up to date in his book, Healing The Heart Of Democracy. Palmer argues that the current dysfunction in government stems from a weakness in civic associations, particularly churches.
I base my case on the sociology of Robert Putnam in his book, American Grace. Putnam has verified through solid social science research that “Religious Americans are, in fact, more generous neighbors and more conscientious citizens.” We aren’t perfect. He has his criticisms of us. We ought to be considerably more tolerant of each other. But we are doing some things right. All of the facts below come from Putnam’s research.
Let’s start with how we spend our time. Should we spend our time doing good in church or real good in the secular world? It turns out to be a false dichotomy. Of those people who do volunteer work in church, 91% also do volunteer work in secular programs. Of those people do who not engage in church work, only 31% give any of their time to secular causes. Volunteering in church almost triples the likelihood of volunteering in secular civic programs. It seems the Church somehow shapes our characters in ways that change what we do. One thing Church inclines us to do is volunteer in our community. (But wait there's more).
Now to the “M” word – money. Even those who still love the Church don’t want us talking about money, certainly not asking their people for it. Generosity is a good thing, so we might encourage people to give money to a secular charity, but not to support the work of the Church. That kind of thinking by Church folks has succeeded in secularizing charitable giving considerably. The percentage of charitable giving that goes to the Church has plummeted in the last 15 years.
But do secular causes actually come out better? Or are we killing the goose that lays their golden egg? Of all givers to religious causes, 88% also contribute to secular causes. Of those who do not give to religious causes, only 40% give to secular causes. When one looks at percentage of income given away, religious people are four times as generous as non-religious people.
It turns out religious people are more likely than non-religious people to:
Give to a charity
Work for a charity
Give money to a homeless person
Give excess change to a shop clerk
Help someone outside his or her own household with housework
Spend time with someone who is “a bit down”
Allow a stranger to cut in font of them
Offer their seat to a stranger
Help someone find a job
Look after the plant or pet of another while away
Carry a stranger’s belongings
Give directions to a stranger
Let someone borrow an item of some value
Lend money to another person.
It is the orthodoxy of post-modernity that religious observance doesn’t matter. It’s what you do out in the world day in and day out that matters. There is a huge truth in the part about what you do in the world. But the fallacy is the part about religious observance. It’s another false dichotomy. Religious observance and doing good in the world are positively correlated. We can’t prove cause and effect. But the correlation is clear as bell.
What this means for me is simple. Church matters. It makes us better than we would be without it. It is often my job to deal with Church folks at their worst. And God knows we have faults a-plenty. But Putnam convinces me that for all that is tiresome and frustrating, petty and sometimes vicious, in the life of the Church, it nonetheless makes us kinder, gentler, more generous human beings. Like St. Anselm's, my faith is often in search of a reason. This is a pretty good reason. The only proof of any religion is the moral proof, the kind of people we become through living out if it. It looks like we are doing better than I had thought.
Oh, another point, it looks like religion isn’t all in our heads. The behavioral changes brought about by religion don’t correlate to different dogmas or truth claims. They correlate to involvement in the faith community. You can’t do it on your own just by believing the right stuff or praying real hard or meditating your way into a zone. The hard truth is: it takes those other people.