December 29, 2006
By Patrick F. Fagan, Ph.D.
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:
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
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
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
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
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.
Patrick F. Fagan, Ph.D.
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