Country music legend Johnny Cash had hit rock bottom. Exhausted by his struggle with drug addiction, he literally crawled into a cave to die. But then, as he described it later, a feeling of tranquility came over him and drew him back from the brink: “There in Nickajack Cave I became conscious of a very clear, simple idea: I was not in charge of my destiny. I was not in charge of my own death. I was going to die at God’s time, not mine.”
Cash’s spiritual awakening gave him new hope. His story of redemption rings true among countless Americans who credit faith with helping them overcome addiction and other self-destructive behaviors.
Unfortunately, an increasing number of Americans are living only the earlier part of Cash’s story—the misery, futility, and sense of hopelessness. The Heritage Foundation’s 2017 Index of Culture and Opportunityreports that Americans are now four times more likely to die from opioid overdose than in 1999. Teens are 13.5 percent more likely to use drugs than in 2006, with just under a quarter of high school seniors reporting drug use last year. President Trump was right to recognize that the opioid crisis is really a national emergency.
The suicide rate has risen so sharply that the overall life expectancy of Americans is declining for the first time since the 1930s. Meanwhile, the marriage rate continues to decline. A likely related trend is the unemployment of young men, which has doubled in the last 15 years.
Money and Programs Can’t Provide Existential Meaning
Clearly, many Americans are stressed out—economically, emotionally, and psychologically. But what ails America cannot be remedied with just money or counselling. A genuine cure must include cultural revival in which religious communities come alongside individuals and families to reweave the frayed ends of broken relationships. Empirical research demonstrates that religion contributes to individual and societal prosperity. In his book, “Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis,” J.D. Vance shows how religion can help generate holistic flourishing.
Like Cash’s story, Vance’s memoir brings to life the statistics about divorce, domestic violence, and drug addiction. He credits his own upward trajectory to acquiring “social capital.” Through personal networks, he learned “soft skills” like conflict resolution and financial management that fueled his upward mobility. He cited both the military and churches as critical institutions that form social capital.
Massachusetts Institute of Technology economist Jonathan Gruber’s research has demonstrated a causal connection between children’s church attendance and their ability to stay off drugs and out of prison. After analyzing religious attendance, Gruber also observed an “incredibly strong correlation” with higher education, more stable marriages, higher income, and lower likelihood of being on welfare. A study at Harvard showed that those who attend religious services at least once a week are five times less likely to commit suicide.
A Commitment to Morality Increases Social Trust
The role of faith in preventing and treating opioid addiction is increasingly evident. New Hampshire and West Virginia present a contrast in addiction and religiosity. New Hampshire confounds purely economic explanations of addiction, since it has both high employment and high addiction. It doesn’t fit in well with mainstream media narratives, but states like West Virginia, Utah, and those in the Deep South have both high levels of religiosity and low levels of addiction.
As the Trump administration builds a strategy to combat this public health emergency affecting 21 million Americans, it should consider not only criminal punishments and opioid alternatives, it should also take into account the empirical evidence of faith’s role as seen in the states. Similar to Gruber’s observations about faith’s effects in the lives of individual Americans, a Chinese economist saw faith’s effects on business transactions in America’s national economy. Zhao Xiao traces America’s prosperity back to the Puritans.
He sees a relationship between their transcendental motives and a high degree of personal integrity, which generated trust and minimized friction in economic transactions. Zhao’s research has influenced policymakers in the Chinese Communist Party, who are increasingly emphasizing the role of morality in fostering trust.
Harvard business professor Clayton Christensen also attributes America’s economic success to civic virtues religious communities teach, such as obedience to the law, respect for private property, and honesty. While earlier generations created the cultural momentum that led to American prosperity, Christensen warns that momentum is dissipating as religious belief wanes: “If you take away religion, you can’t hire enough police.”
Religion Is Important for a Thriving Country
The importance of personal virtue for society is something Vance takes seriously. He urges Americans to incorporate cultural causes into our discussions of the structural factors that contribute to poverty. When individuals feel hopeless, marriages dissolve, and children get caught up in families’ breakdown, government solutions are not enough to make up the difference. Religious communities, however, are there when life falls apart.
Just how critical are religious organizations to the fabric of American life? Religious networks provide $161 billion in medical services annually. Religious schools and colleges provide $138 billion in education. Religious charities contribute $95.2 billion, religious businesses $438 billion, and religious congregations $326 billion. Eliminate religious organizations, and Americans would lose $1.2 trillion in services.
Communities also benefit greatly from partnerships between government and religious groups. Consider the relief efforts needed to deal with natural disasters like Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria. Nonprofits provide 80 percent of recovery efforts, and they are mostly faith-based. But faith is equally as powerful in less visible day-to-day interactions. In Gadsden County, Florida, partnerships between faith leaders and city officials have transformed programs in women’s prisons and schools.
In the words of the town sheriff, “We cannot incarcerate our way out of crime. When all else fails, you sometimes have to appeal to the spiritual side of offenders.” Local churches in Gadsden send members to teach inmates the Bible and life skills. Other churches help find jobs and housing for newly released inmates. Gadsden County’s story is one of countless examples showing the “spiritual capital” that religion provides on top of its tremendous economic value—more than that of Facebook, Google, and Apple combined, according to the research of Brian Grim.
Faith Provides Private Accountability We All Need
Faith infuses lives with greater meaning, and faith communities help us make and keep wise commitments. They help us to stay engaged in the lives of our spouses, children, and friends. They help us to stay in school and at jobs when we might prefer to quit. Most of us are more likely to keep commitments when others help. But this kind of accountability, which requires face-to-face contact over a long period of time, is not something the government is well-equipped to provide.
Religious communities help parents raise their children. They provide counseling to individuals while they are dating, after they get married, and even when they lose a spouse. They provide assistance, loans, and job contacts to those who are unemployed. And they are a source of encouragement and hope for people desperate to stay out of addiction.
The American Dream is still alive, but it needs renewal. Government can help. But it takes communities of faith to fully rebuild what has been broken and to restore hope where it’s been lost.
This piece originally appeared in The Federalist