Each year, government spends billions of dollars trying to address a host of social problems. Crime is but one example of the high costs of social breakdown. The U.S. Department of Justice estimates that federal, state, and local governments spent $167 billion on police protection, judicial, legal and correctional activities in one year alone. Victims' medical expenses, lost earnings, and assistance programs cost an estimated $105 billion more.
Congress and state legislatures spend countless hours investigating social problems and debating possible solutions. Political "solutions" almost always boil down to the redistribution of money to target whatever the social ailment. This approach has met with limited success at best. Sometimes, it has exacerbated a problem.
Meanwhile, a powerful resource is quietly and far more effectively contributing to the common good in myriad ways: religious practice.
The research shows that regular attendance at religious services - across all denominations -- is linked to healthy, stable family life, strong marriages, and well-behaved children. Regular religious worship also is tied to reduced incidence of domestic abuse, crime, substance abuse, addiction and various other diseases. And the benefits of religion are intergenerational. Grandparents and parents tend to pass these positive traits down to succeeding generations.
Religious practice benefits not only individuals but also communities. Religiously active men and women are often more sensitive to others, more likely to be productive members of their communities, more likely to serve and far more likely to give to those in need.
In fact, a series of studies found religious individuals were 40 percent more likely than their secular counterparts to give money to charities and more than twice as likely to volunteer. Individuals who gave to charitable organizations were, not surprisingly, much more likely to give informally to their family and friends, too.
A strong religious background also helps immigrants assimilate to their new homeland.
In research on the role of the ethnic church in the social adjustment of Vietnamese adolescents, regular religious attendance was found to increase the likelihood that youth would attend after-school classes, as well as the likelihood they would retain their ethnic cohesion. This helped these immigrants get better grades, avoid substance abuse and focus on going to college.
Religious observers are also healthier people. A review of 250 epidemiological health resource studies found a reduced risk of colitis, different types of cancer and untimely death among people with higher levels of religious commitment. In short, greater longevity is consistently and significantly related to higher levels of religious practice and involvement, regardless of gender, race, education or health history.
Finally, regular religious observance significantly reduces self-destructive behavior. As an example, African-American youth living in impoverished urban neighborhoods who attended religious services at least weekly were half as likely to use illicit drugs as those who never attended, a study found.
Perhaps best of all, studies indicate that religion is especially helpful to the poor, compensating in a way that policy never has for their socioeconomic disadvantages. All in all, religion is simply one of the most valuable resources this country has.
As with other resources, government policy should be directed to cultivating the environment in which individuals as well as society as a whole can freely benefit from religious practice, avoiding heavy-handed regulations that would wither the fruits of the spirit and curb the good works that are so beneficial to society. Neither man nor government can coerce faith. But government can and must protect the practice of religion, public and private.
The Founding Fathers understood the societal value of religion. "Religion and morality are indispensable supports," George Washington announced in his farewell address to the nation. But they also understood religion's values could never be forced on people. Our Bill of Rights guarantees freedom of religion, and it protects us from an established, government-supported church, one that would undoubtedly drain many of the benefits from religious practice.
Government must protect and uphold freedom of worship, then stand aside and let religion do what it does best -- help and comfort the needy. This approach can produce tremendous benefits, not only in the lives of believers but in our national life as well.
Patrick Fagan is the William H.G. FitzGerald research fellow in family and cultural issues at The Heritage Foundation.
Distributed nationally on the McClatchy Tribune wire