This article is part of a series on religious freedom and diversity. We asked representatives of different religious communities, “How do you think you are most commonly misunderstood” and “what do you think we have in common”. The opinions expressed in these articles are those of the person quoted and should not be interpreted to reflect the perspective of FPIW or its employees. FPIW is a Christian organization that desires to work with people of all faiths, or no faith at all, that share our commitment to life, marriage, religious freedom, and parental rights.
A few months ago I conceived of a project that would fulfill two goals: celebrate religious freedom and strengthen ties between faith communities within our state. My plan was simply to visit places of worship, interview the people I met there, and write about my experience in a blog series for the Family Policy Institute of Washington.
As a person of faith, I am concerned about our nation’s increasingly narrow definition of religious freedom. A healthcare worker who does not wish to administer the morning-after pill is told, “This is not a religious issue; this is a healthcare issue.” A photographer who does not wish to record a same-sex ceremony is told: “This is not a religious issue; this is a discrimination issue.” Of course, “This is not a religious issue; this is a (fill in the blank) issue,” can be applied to every activity that occurs outside a place of worship. And so conscience rights are diluted to the idea that one can believe and say as he pleases, but not do as he pleases. For those who feel accountable to God, this is unacceptable. Our places of worship are where we study how to live, not where we live.
Defending our neighbors whose freedoms have been violated is a moral imperative, but with this blog series I want to step back from the battlefront to celebrate what it is we’re defending. The United States Constitution declares: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Those words should be sacred to every American. They are the foundation of American liberty and the American dream.
In his 2012 book, “America’s Blessings: How Religion Benefits Everyone, Including Atheists,” sociologist Rodney Stark shows how these words have shaped our nation to be exceptionally religious. Rodney reports that in 1776 only about 20 percent of American colonists belonged to a local church. At the time, most colonies had a state-established religion, similar to the monopoly churches found in Europe then and today.
The colonies’ churches were discontinued with the establishment of the U.S. Constitution, placing all denominations on the same footing. “Intense competition arose among the churches for member support,” Stark writes, “and the net result of their combined efforts was a dramatic increase in Americans’ religious participation.” The U.S. soon had more clergymen who worked harder for less money than did clergy in the Old World. Stark writes that the percentage of citizens who belonged to a church rose continually through the next two centuries to a high of about 70% today.
Stark goes on to tabulate what science has revealed about the effects of religiosity-most often measured by frequency of attendance at a place of worship. The preponderance of research indicates that religious organizations do for the soul what a gym does for the body. For example, religious people as compared with non-religious people are less likely to commit crimes, less likely to commit suicide, more likely to marry and be satisfied in their marriage, less likely to divorce or have extramarital affairs, and less likely to be on unemployment or welfare. Religious students perform better on standardized tests. Religious people live, on average, seven years longer than their non-religious counterparts. Stark describes study after study showing a correlation between religiosity and practically every measure of health and happiness.
Why don’t we hear more about this? Probably because religion is not in fashion, especially among our nation’s media elites. News outlets do publish stories about scientific research and surveys about religion, but they seldom make it to a prominent page. They rarely become a part of the national conversation.
It is therefore especially important for people like you and me to spread awareness of religion’s benefits and to take pride in being religious. It’s also important for us to become acquainted with one another so that we can stand together in protecting our liberty. Our backgrounds, belief systems and political leanings are diverse, but we can be a united, coherent voice in defending freedom of conscience. I invite you to come along with me as I set out to meet our neighbors and learn how they are utilizing their freedom. Please join me in our Freedom Friendship.
This is the first article in a blog series celebrating religious freedom to be published each Thursday during the months of April and May.