To be honest, I had never read George Washington’s farewell address until last year’s election. It was then that dismayed citizens like me found a sense of justification for our fears in his warning that excessive partisanship leads to despotism. Yet as I read and reread Washington’s prose, I kept returning not to his thoughts on party politics, but to his argument about the centrality of religion in the preservation of a moral society. He writes:
“Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.”
These words are chillingly descriptive of our current society. If Washington is correct, then the long-term decline of religious participation in America and other democratic countries is one of the root causes for the type of political decay we are experiencing—and the absence of a “national morality” is at the core of this. The first American president was not a religious zealot, but he nonetheless saw religious practice as an essential act of citizenship, especially among those of “refined education.”
In this sacred season for Jews and Christians, it is time to consider whether the exercise of the right to freedom of religion is crucial to the future of our republic—and to democracy around the world.
According to the Pew Research Center, the largest shift in American religious identity in the past decade is the growth of the “unaffiliated,” which stood at 22.8% of the population in 2015. This trend is consistent with changing religious identity in Europe and Latin America. Moreover, this group is getting younger, which foretells a long-term demographic movement. As religious affiliation declines, many faith institutions in America’s system of philanthropic funding are being starved of resources, even as charitable giving as a whole is on the upswing. If left unchecked, this current trajectory will undoubtedly accelerate the dismantling of the American religious landscape in the coming decades. Reality dictates that without a congregation of a certain size, the house of worship on your corner will soon be turned into yet another condominium project or whimsical private residence.
There is a multitude of good reasons why Americans are deserting the faith institutions their forebears built, not the least of which is the litany of inexcusable abuses many have suffered in the name of religion. (And to be sure, not every faith group is dedicated to upholding peace and common human dignity.) But the scale of exodus leaves one to wonder if the abandonment of “organized” religion is not something akin to the type of apathy that led left-leaning people like me to become complacent about our political institutions. After all, the American state is guilty of just as many sins as religion, and yet there is no movement to abandon our institutions of democracy.
Rather, concerned citizens are rising up to defend civic values. Our country’s religious institutions desperately need the wisdom and energy of those same citizens in order to advance a moral agenda that is more substantive than partisan politics. If even a small portion of people who are inactive but generally positively inclined toward religion became more involved, we would take a great step toward mending the spiritual wounds of our country. Citizens of countries around the world will recognize this same problem and the only viable solution to it: a renewed commitment to those religious institutions dedicated to making our world equitable, peaceful, and just.
In the US, the weakening of religious institutions is not just a problem of the left. Peter Beinart’s recent article in The Atlantic cites the swift increase in the number of religiously unaffiliated or nominal religious Republicans to explain how the secularization of both the left and right is leading to political polarization. As Americans from either side of the political spectrum leave religious institutions, we are depriving ourselves of one of our fundamental tools of social cohesion and healing. There is no place like a faith community to foster truly meaningful bonds with relative strangers, and in this time when so many people feel disconnected and confused, a loving congregation can offer the peace of authentic belonging.
At their best, houses of worship are the places where strangers meet one another to share what the theologian Paul Tillich calls the state of “ultimate concern,” which is rooted in the millennia of human experience for which faith traditions are the repository of memory and learning. By entering into relationships with one another within and across these traditions, we gain the perspective necessary to forge national moralities that transcend the cults of partisanship. Without them, we risk perpetuating the forms of isolation that lead to resentment and mutual distrust.
Unfortunately, we have allowed the most radical voices to set the policy agenda associated with religion. But the diversity of faith in modern democracies all but ensures that no matter where someone lives, there will be a religious community driven by moral conviction to practice values such as LGBT equality, freedom of reproductive choice, and tolerance for all religions. Few houses of worship demand a complete testimony of faith; almost all are profoundly grateful for the presence of newcomers. The possibilities for fruitful engagement are as exciting as they are endless, and they begin in the local congregation that welcomes and loves you for no other reason than that you showed up.
If these times have motivated you to offer your particular skills for the greater good, there will certainly be a faith-led program that will be thankful for your effort. If you want to have a lasting impact on the future of your community and your society, the children and youth of your local congregation await your contribution. Religion reminds us that politics is not our salvation. Perhaps that is why the freedom of religion is the first right enumerated in the American Bill of Rights. It would be catastrophic for us not just as individuals but as a society if that privilege were lost—not because it was taken away, but because we ceased to value it.