“Nones are on the rise”—and no, I’m not talking about “Sister Act.”
A 2012 report by the Pew Research Center showed that “the number of Americans who do not identify with any religion continues to grow at a rapid pace. One-fifth of the U.S. public—and a third of adults under 30—are religiously unaffiliated today.”
Many people find this phenomenon unconcerning; they see religious belief as a personal choice that has no affect on others. Religious freedom is protected by the Constitution, which means people can choose to believe—or not believe—anything they want.
While that is true, this trend does not bode well for America’s future prosperity. Daniel Dreisbach, professor of Justice, Law and Society at American University, explains why America’s Founders would agree:
There was a consensus among the Founders that religion was indispensable to a system of republican self-government.
The challenge the Founders confronted was how to nurture personal responsibility and social order in a system of self-government. Tyrants and dictators can use the whip and rod to force people to behave as they desire, but clearly this is incompatible with a self-governing people.
In response to this challenge the Founders looked to religion (and morality informed by religious faith) to provide the internal moral compass that would prompt citizens to behave in a disciplined manner and thereby promote social order and political stability.
The French historian, Alexis de Tocqueville, expounds on this proposition in his classic work “Democracy in America.” Growing up in the turbulent aftermath of the French Revolution, Tocqueville witnessed, first-hand, how democracy could go wrong. But when he visited America, he found a nation where democracy—supported by tradition, morality, virtue and religion—actually worked.
What Tocqueville and our nation’s Founders understood, was that a free, democratic country could not long survive without a virtuous citizenry. And regardless of each of their personal convictions about God, they all firmly believed that religion was instrumental in maintaining this public virtue.
That is why our nation’s continuing decline in religiosity is troubling.
Without religion, morality lacks support and virtue lacks purpose. Without morality and virtue, civil society will slowly crumble. And if civil society fails, government is forced to pick up its slack—and as I’ve mentioned before, it is not very good at it.
To avoid this fate, America desperately needs to regain the robust civil society that caused Tocqueville to marvel. In order for this to happen, religion needs to stage a comeback, reversing the current apathetic trend towards non-belief.
On a structural, macro-level, churches—along with families—are the foundation of civil society. They help create virtuous communities by bringing people together who can then care for each other spiritually, emotionally and physically. Churches also serve people in their neighboring communities; providing for needs in holistic ways.
However, in many ways, the church has inadequately filled this role.
The evangelical Christian church especially has tended to overemphasize the personal nature of faith, and in turn, ignored the church’s mission of service within communities. That has to change. Christians are called to further God’s kingdom, and one way they can do that is through active service that cares for the needy and strengthens America’s civil society.
Private, non-religious organizations do wonderful work as well—I do not want to belittle their efforts. But churches are the lifeblood of social justice and help sustain the virtue that is requisite if we are to have a society where such secular organizations can exist.
And on a personal, micro-level, those of you who have experienced and accepted God’s love and grace know how it changes your life—everything is different. Individuals are reinvigorated and motivated to serve, relationships are redeemed, and society is positively affected as a result. Religion is ultimately a matter of the heart, but it also has immense societal ramifications. Christians, through the church, must realize this and provide the underlying presence that this country needs to be prosperous.
We, as Americans, are blessed to live in a great country. But the sacred liberty that we enjoy can only last if it is complemented by virtue. Without it, government will only get bigger and freedom more limited.
Alexis de Tocqueville has been quoted as saying, “America is great because she is good, and if America ever ceases to be good, she will cease to be great.” So at a time when the number of “nones” is only growing larger, it seems that now more than ever before, America’s future depends on the church.