Is the Decline of Religion the Decline of Generosity?

Last week a colleague made me aware of a recent Boston Globe column by Jeff Jacoby. That was a mischievous thing to do, as my colleague knew full well how I would react to the column’s bullshit premise.

Jacoby claims to want to see the matter empirically, but it’s immediately clear he buys into the false assumption that declining religious affiliation will make the whole country worse off—that the rise of religiously unaffiliated “nones” marks the arrival of a less generous, less healthy common culture.

Jacoby cites the usual worrisome factoids: to wit, a decline in the share of U.S. households that give to charity and a similar decline in the proportion of the population that is involved in volunteer work. He’s bothered by the likelihood that the religiously unaffiliated will outnumber self-identified Roman Catholics by 2020, and it appears to concern him greatly that fewer and fewer people now tell pollsters that religious organizations make a positive contribution to solving social problems.

It seems not to have occurred to Jacoby that declines in charitable giving and volunteer hours might have something to do with the time pressures and psychic demands of the new ruthless economy. It seems to have escaped his notice that faith-based institutions may be losing the confidence and trust of everyday people because these everyday people don’t see faith leaders or faith-based organizations doing much, or even saying much, about the issues that matter most: lack of access to decent affordable health care and housing, and stagnant or declining real incomes for the vast majority at a time when the super-wealthy are buying third homes and second yachts.

This gets to the heart of the problem with Jacoby’s overall approach. He, along with far too many faith-friendly writers and thinkers, is either ignorant of, or confused about, the difference between charity and justice. Sure, religious households give more money away (most of it to religion, by the way) than unaffiliated households. Bully for them. But do they ever question why poverty and hunger and homelessness continue to soar in this supposedly “rich” country?

Similarly, I suppose it’s wonderful news that believers, on average, put in more volunteer hours than nonbelievers. But do these holy helpers ever think to challenge the political-economic power structure that systematically de-funds and eliminates public programs, thereby greatly compounding the need for all this reliance on private charity?

Yes, you can do both—you can do mercy and also love justice, as someone once suggested—but in America the “faithful” rarely love justice enough to demand systemic change. Quite the opposite, in fact.

Two primary factors help to maintain the disconnect between religious identification and justice seeking. Religiosity in this country has always been closely aligned with a petit-bourgeois mentality: one major reason that religious folks go to church (or to the synagogue or mosque) is to signify that they are pulling their weight and that the system is working. And because of the strong impress of conservative Christianity within the U.S. context, having a higher degree of religiosity also aligns with holding an authoritarian mindset and believing that people should respect social hierarchies and welcome the rule of wealth.

To be clear, I am all for people being personally generous and socially involved, but no one should think that greater individual giving means we will enjoy a more just and more generous culture. I will gladly reconsider my view of this matter if we should suddenly see masses of church folks signing up to work with Indivisible or demanding healthcare for all, free public education, and an end to corporate welfare. Do not hold your breath.

By the way, Jeff Jacoby’s misplaced worry about declining religion and the collapse of civilization is hardly new. It shows up among the memorials left by worrywarts in the days of Roman antiquity. It’s a big theme of British Victorians who obsessed about the corrosive effects of the industrial revolution. It’s a consistent thread in the preachments of American cultural conservatives ranging from Cotton Mather to David Brooks.

Historically, most conservatives writing on this theme have had the decency to say that religion is important because it helps to keep the rabble fearful and deferential. I suppose it’s not too great a variation to suggest that religion does the additional work of keeping the plebeians charitable and thus mainly ignorant of the greater demands of justice.