The role of faith in public life is often hotly contested, especially considering the discouraging number of people who view religion as having a negative, rather than positive, impact on society. But new research from Sutherland Institute provides overwhelming evidence for this key point: Religion fills essential roles that do tremendous good for individuals, families and communities — and it is worthy of support from voters and policymakers.

A recent survey conducted by the University of Birmingham (U.K.) asked people from seven countries about their perspectives on “the impacts of religion on society.” In five countries (Australia, Canada, Germany, Spain, U.K.), the majority reported they “think that religion often has more negative consequences for society than positive consequences.” The lowest percentage holding this position was in Argentina (37%). The U.S. was a little more positive about the impacts of religion, with 40% reporting that they thought religion’s influence was more negative than positive.

Is that fair?

A new publication that I have written for Sutherland Institute, ”What Good Does Religion Do?” shows the overwhelming evidence that religion is in fact a net positive for society. The first in a series of publications on the social benefits of religion, this paper describes how churches, other religious organizations and individual people of faith provide for the tangible needs of their neighbors.

With Utah ranking first in the nation for the proportion of its population that consists of religious adherents, according to a recent Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute publication (76.1%), the broad set of social services that religion provides bodes well for the future of our state.

For many people, terms like religion or faith conjure up images of ceremonial worship, but for believers, religious faith is likely to be understood not only as a vital aspect of personal identity but also of social responsibility. In fact, those who are not affiliated with a church are more likely to interact with religious organizations and people of faith through social services rather than worship services. Sutherland’s new publication catalogs some important examples of how religious groups and those who belong to them provide important services not only to their own adherents but to their neighbors.

Religious groups and people of faith actively provide emergency relief (including the recent pandemic response and assistance to homeless people and refugees), charitable giving, social services (particularly for the elderly, prisoners, vulnerable children, families in need, and the un- and underemployed), and medical care. Some of these contributions, such as those that people of faith and religious organizations provide to foster care, are possibly the most important private contributions to that particular service.

People of faith tend to be more generous in charitable giving, and they have made foundational contributions to health care in the United States (contributions that continue today). This is not to mention disaster response, aid to refugees, prisoner assistance and many other contributions.

While organized religion gets a bad rap in some circles, it provides distinct advantages for facilitating service and care for those in need. People of faith, motivated by the altruism they learn in their congregations and the encouragement they receive from the teachings of their faith, can easily join to magnify their efforts in caring for others. An individual who could do little alone to respond to the plight of prisoners or refugees, when combining their efforts with many others, can make an enormous difference.

Those who do not share a particular faith often find it difficult to understand why the religious believe as they do. People of faith believe they are accountable to God and to one another for what they do. That motivation may seem strange and incomprehensible to those who do not share the faith; they may even dislike what believers are motivated to do or to teach.

The examples shared in the report, however, help us understand one of the reasons why the framers of the U.S. Constitution might have singled out religious practice for protection. The deep motivations of religious faith are different from motivations of self-interest. When we protect religious liberty, we are protecting unique motivations and encouraging the religiously motivated sacrifices that many people in society — especially vulnerable populations — depend upon when times are difficult. Whether we agree with the underlying beliefs or not, it is good for all of us that many of our fellow citizens are motivated by a higher cause.

Clearly, many people, based on their personal experiences or the way they see religion portrayed, have doubts about the value of religion for society. People of faith and religious organizations will continue to invite people to hear the “music of faith.” The portrayal of religion, too, needs attention. This report seeks to balance the portrayal of religious groups and people of faith by providing an introduction to the important benefits they contribute to the well-being of the people around them, particularly the most vulnerable.

William C. Duncan, J.D., is the constitutional law and religious freedom fellow for Sutherland Institute