Staying with the question longer is a smart thing to do.
I have spent a great deal of time recently exploring how rugged individualism and compassionate communitarianism are compatible, and essential, American principles. Albert Einstein is purported to have said, “It’s not that I’m so smart. But I stay with the questions much longer.” In an attempt to stay with the question of successful individuals and societies longer, I investigated further the role of faith and religion in them.
Part of the challenge of any strong society is tapping into the forces and natural inclinations that pull rugged individuals into associations where social capital can be created, invested and deployed. Individual faith and shared religious experience naturally draw such rugged individuals into compassionate, committed communities.
Someone who has stayed with the question of the impact of faith in the public square is Robert Putnam. His landmark work “Bowling Alone” continues to raise critical questions about what is ailing alienated and isolated Americans.
In “Bowling Alone,” Putnam posited, “Faith communities in which people worship together are arguably the single most important repository of social capital in America. … As a rough rule of thumb, our evidence shows, nearly half of all associational memberships in America are church related, half of all personal philanthropy is religious in character and half of all volunteering occurs in a religious context.”
Putnam referred to the Social Capital Project as perhaps the most rigorous and important research into American communities and society ever attempted by the Joint Economic Committee of the United States Congress. Under JEC chairman Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, the Social Capital Project reported, “Religious institutions that convene people under the banner of shared beliefs have powerful community-promoting advantages as compared with secular institutions. They provide a vehicle for like-minded people to associate, through regular attendance at religious services and other events and charitable activities they sponsor. Religious institutions are highly effective at enforcing commitment to shared principles and norms of behavior, passed down over generations.”
The Social Capital Project report also noted that religious membership is strongly correlated with voting, jury service, talking with neighbors and giving to charity. Frequent churchgoers are more trusting than other Americans, the report noted, and are generally trusted more as well.
“Faith gives purpose and hope to our lives. It encourages us to help each other, to love each other,” Elder Jeffrey R. Holland, an apostle in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, recently told me. “Absent faith, we can easily stumble down a ladder that at the top was glowing humanism but at the bottom smashed us nose first into joyless cynicism. For the cynic, there is no real reason to help a neighbor in need or friend that is faltering because ‘What’s the use? Life will just bring both of us more trouble and disappointment tomorrow.’”
Elder Holland went on, “The freedom of religion contained in the First Amendment isn’t simply the freedom to choose to be a Baptist, Catholic, Latter-day Saint, Jew, Buddhist, Muslim or even an agnostic, and then hide that fact under a bushel basket. It is the freedom to live what you profess to believe and to bring that influence for good into public life. Jesus told Christians, for example, that they were to be the salt of the earth and to flavor the whole community and, as a result, to be a light to the world and let everyone see it. Believers, living their faith in public with civility and courtesy, were meant to be a positive influence in society.”
Faith and religious activity are not the only answer to what ails society. Nonbelievers and other secular institutions and organizations also add tremendous value to communities in countless ways. It does seem, however, that staying with the question of whether or not society is stronger with faith, and people of faith, is worth continued consideration.