066 Why America Needs Religion

Guenter Lewy, professor emeritus of political science at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, has written a book he didn’t intend to write! An acknowledged secular humanist, bom to nonobservant German Jews, properly tilted to the left as is the academic fashion, he disdained the likes of Pat Robertson and Billy Graham. He also revered the “wall of separation” between church and state, fearing any hint of religious influence in the body politic. In the midst of writing his “defense of secular humanism and ethical relativism” (p. x), however, a strange thing happened! He became convinced, though without abandoning his personal agnosticism, that what this country desperately needs is a renewal of religious commitment.

So he repudiated his preconceptions, upended his biases, and wrote Why America Needs Religion: SecularModernity and Its Discontents (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, c. 1996). “The urgent task for believers and nonbelievers alike, I submit,” he declares, “is to replenish the moral capital that was accumulated over many centuries from a unique stock of religious and ethical teachings, a fund that we have been depleting of late at an alarming rate” (p. xii). He ultimately found himself agreeing with an unlikely conservative: “‘What ails modem civilization?’ Russell Kirk asked in a lecture several years ago. Fundamentally,’ he answered, ‘our society’s affliction is the decay of religious belief. If a culture is to survive and flourish, it must not be severed from the religious vision out of which it arose. The high necessity of reflective men and women, then, is to labor for the restoration of religious teachings as a credible body of doctrine'” (p. 131).

Lewy’s new-found convictions emerged from a careful study of “Christianity and Western Civilization.” For all its flaws, this civilization has truly blessed the world! Century after century, devout Christians have worked for social justice, cared for the destitute and oppressed, making the West a uniquely humanitarian society. Standard horror stories, such as the evils of the Spanish Inquisition, Levy found, lose some of their shock value when subjected to careful investigation. (For example, without justifying the executions, we must remember that only 30,000 Jews and Protestants were executed by the Spanish Inquisition in 300 years.) When set alongside the 20th century’s secular ideologies–consecrated by the slaughter of multiplied millions in Fascist and Communist blood baths–the Inquisition seems far less evil! The true source of “man’s inhumanity to man,” Lewy concluded, resides in the secularism of the Enlightenment more than the religion of Medieval Europe. It was the encyclopedist Diderot who, in the name of liberty, scoffed a monogamy and approved fornication, adultery, incest. His celebration of instinct, rather than cultural restraint, culminated in the “demented ravings of the Marquis de Sade” (p. 28). The resurgence of de Sade, in the works of some “postmodernists,” reveals the deeply-embedded inhumanity of secularism.

In the judgment of Lewy, the Enlightenment project has manifestly misfired. Its “secular city” has failed to establish the heavenly Utopia predicted by Rousseau and Marx. The “humanism” of secular humanists such as John Dewey has proven, ultimately, to be utterly inhumane wherever established. Thus it’s time to return to a better model: strong nuclear families rooted in religious faith. “By now there exists an impressive body of research that supports the superiority of the traditional family over all rival arrangements” (p. 44). “Summarizing a large body of research, Richard Gill writes, “If one had to select the single most important factor responsible for the disturbing condition of many of today’s younger generation … the breakdown of the intact biological-parent family would almost certainly be at or near the top of the list'” (p. 108).

Enormous expenditures of public funds, designed to abolish poverty and help minorities, have done the opposite. Quite frankly, Charles Murray contends “‘we don’t know how to make teenagers who have grown up in an underclass culture into steady workers, we don’t know how to make up for the lack of good parents, and most critically, we don’t know how to make up for the lack of communities that reward responsibility and stigmatize irresponsitility” (p. 60). What’s called the “underclass” in America is simply living out the ethos articulated by academics and popularized by media elites. Its conditions graphically illustrate the end-result of what was once called the “new morality.” The “sexual revolution” which began in the 1960’s has swept through the country, leaving chaos and violence in its wake. Americans’ once strong commitment to marriage, children, community, has vanished. The most visible problem birthed by the new morality is illegitimacy. This, Lewy says, agreeing with Charles Murray, “‘is the single most important social problem of our time–more important than crime, drugs, poverty, illiteracy, welfare or homelessness because it drives everything else'” (p. 63).

To restore health to the body politic, Lewy prescribes a recovery of religiousness.” He himself, it seems, has no interest in embracing any religious faith, but he certainly hopes others do! For him, it’s simply a pragmatic matter, based upon his research which persuaded him that public morality needs religious foundations. Fortunately, despite oft-repeated reports of the “secularization” of America–rendered by secularized “scholars” who easily imposed their own views on their studies-religious faith has remained quite constant throughout this century. It’s also evident, Lewy holds, that religiousness helps shape behavior. Here again, secularists have trumpeted various studies designed to show the discrepancy between faith and practice, but Lewy counters such claims with what he takes to be solid data. Two reputable scholars, summarizing “a large body of research,” asserted: “‘Religiosity is inversely related to delinquent behavior”‘ (p. 95). Thus “the greater the percentage of Catholics in a state, the lower the rate of rape” (p. 97). Church-goers are less prejudiced than the un-churched (p. 101). There are fewer “out-of-wedlock teenage pregnancies” (p. 104). Divorce is less prevalent when the couple has a church wedding and stays involved in church activities (p. 110). Church-going inner-city youths do better in school and escape poverty more easily (p. 127).

In general, religious people add goodness–moral capital–to their community. Thus “38 percent of the most religious Americans did volunteer work for a local organization, while only 6 percent of the least religious showed such involvement,” and religious folks give two and a half times more money to charitable organizations. There “is no secular counterpart to the Order of the Missionaries of Charity, founded by Mother Teresa” (p. 137). Atheists may seek to join and profit from organizations such as the Boy Scouts, but they almost never establish and fund them. Facing this evidence, Lewy urges us to restore religion to a central place in the life of our society. Public schools, without turning partisan, must again emphasize religion as a positive cultural influence and openly inculcate traditional morality. Returning to Aristotle’s virtue-focused education is needed to save the nation! Still more: religious leaders must recover a moral message! Lewy, an acknowledged secularized academic, chastises preachers who have compromised their message! “Religion plays a crucial role in the formation of character and the teaching of virtue, yet many of the clergy neglect to speak normatively about family values and other basic moral issues. There is a strong tendency, as one recent observer has put it, ‘to worship a God who, far from judging believers or even challenging them to seek a more virtuous life, tends to massage them, reinforcing them in whatever they have already chosen to do anyway'” (pp. 124-125).

Religious people do in fact live better than irreligious people. Yet public policy and soft-soap preaching have muted their influence in America. They are not being sufficiently challenged to challenge their society. They are, however, our only hope. If this nation is to be saved from the collapse which clearly threatens, more well-trained athletes must move from the grandstands to the moral playing field. “As William Hudson… has argued, ‘If a team is playing football badly, what it needs is not more people who know the rules (every well-informed spectator dies), but some better players, similarly, if a society is deteriorating morally, what it needs is not more moral philosophers, but more good men”‘ (p. 138).

More good men! That’s what’s needed! And Lewy urges the churches, the religious institutions, to recruit, train, and mobilize them. This is a readable, persuasive, worthwhile book, giving both diagnoses and prescriptions we’d be wise to heed.

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A similar case is argued by William J. Bennett, John J. Dilulio, Jr., and John P. Walters in Body Count: Moral Poverty … And How to Win America’s War Against Crime and Drugs (New York: Simon & Schuster, c. 1996). After assessing the nation’s condition, tabulating the shocking “body count” which illustrates how America has “gotten much more dangerous in the past thirty years” (p. 193), the authors say: “A lot is at stake. If we do nothing, we may well be on the way to the ruin of our civilization” (p. 207). It’s a concern almost routinely expressed by informed thinkers. Earlier civilizations were overwhelmed by barbarians invading from without. If we don’t awaken from our slumbers, ours may well be destroyed by barbarians from within. If we act rightly, however, we can chart a better course.

To do so, we must always remember that “the good requires constant reinforcement and the bad needs only permission. Religion is the best and most reliable means we have to reinforce the good. True religious faith enlarges the human heart; inspires us to revere and honor those things that are worthy objects of our attention; reminds people of their basic responsibilities and commitments; provides society with reliable moral and social guardrails; helps the impulse of compassion take on the name of action; and allows the ‘eyes of our heart’ to see our fellow citizens not merely a distant body count statistics or as enemies or aliens or ‘other” but as moral and spiritual beings, as children of God” (p. 208). To reach this conclusion, the authors take us on a careful, statistically-laden tour of the nation’s crime-studded battlefield. Data, charts, tables, references to massive criminology studies, all detail the fact that we live in an increasingly dangerous society. Between 1965 and 1993, for example, the murder rate nearly doubled, climbing from 5.1 to 9.5 per 100,000 citizens. There were six reported robberies for every 10,000 Americans in 1965; in 1994 there were 27.5, a more than four-fold increase. A revolving door judicial system allows violent, hardened, career criminals to commit a disproportionate number of crimes. Countering some of the facile rhetoric we often hear, virtually all prisoners deserve to be there and should, for the good of society, be detained far longer than they are. Drug use and related criminal activity, after several years of decline have escalated under the Clinton administration, ravaging the great cities of America. To argue, as do Bill Buckley and some libertarians, that legalizing drugs would improve things, is irresponsible. “John Jacob, former president of the Urban League, put it this way: ‘Drugs kill more blacks than the Klan ever did. They’re destroying more children and more families than poverty ever did'” (p. 161). Alcohol too contributes to the crime and disorder.

Add to this the staggering increase in illegitimacy–estimated to climb to 40 percent of all births, 80 percent of minority births, by the century’s end-and the fact that 60 percent of all children will spend some of their lives without a father in the house, and you have a crisis of “seismic social implications” (p. 196). Analyzing the causes of all this disorder, the authors reject both liberal and conservative litanies. Neither racism nor poverty actually cause crime, so more money from a paternalistic government will not help, so liberal policies acerbate rather than alleviate the problems. Tougher laws and more police will not resolve the problems, so conservative remedies deal at best with some symptoms rather than causes. The real problem, quite simply, is “moral poverty,” the impoverished estate of kids who grow up “without loving, capable, responsible adults who teach you right from wrong; the poverty of being without parents and other authorities who habituate you to feel joy at others’ joy, pain at others’ pain, satisfaction when yo do right, remorse when you do wrong; the poverty of growing up in the virtual absence of people who teach morality by their own everyday example and who insist that you follow suit” (p. 56).

Amazingly enough, even small links with responsible adults make a difference. Kids who have Big Brothers or Big Sisters are far less likely to do drugs or assault others, to skip school or start drinking. Youngsters “whose neighbors attend church are more likely to find a job, less likely to use drugs, and less likely to be involved in criminal activities whether or not the youths themselves attend church” (p. 73). Just seeing someone live according to a higher law has significance! If our kids are to be saved, if our nation is to be saved, church folks are, apparently, the only ones who can do it!

Don Feder, a syndicated columnist who writes for the Boston Herald, has collected a number of his columns in a book entitled Who’s Afraid of the Religious Right? (Washington: Regnery Publishing, Inc., c. 1996), a suitable sequel to his earlier manifesto, A Jewish Conservative Looks at Pagan America. As a conservative Jew, Feder finds himself comfortable with unlikely allies such as The Christian Coalition, Concerned Women for America (with 600,000 members the country’s largest women’s group, with three times the membership of NOW), James Dobson’s Focus on the Family, and James Kennedy, of the Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church.

To summarize his own views, Feder dares agree “with House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who cautions us: ‘You can not maintain a civilization with 12-year-olds having babies, 15-year-olds killing each other, 17-year-olds dying of AIDS, and 18-year-olds getting diplomas they cannot read. It is impossible” (p. 6). Espousing such views, of course, makes Feder “an outcast and a pariah” in the overwhelmingly liberal Jewish community, to say nothing of the journalistic corps. As a Jew, Feder roots his beliefs in “a Written and Oral Law that contains all the agenda we’ll ever need. We must seek the wisdom, courage, and tenacity to apply those principles consistently to the modern world” (p, 16). Jews such as himself find themselves constantly attacked by secularists (many of them with Jewish ancestry) who cannot tolerate values derived from divine Revelation. But to Feder, there must be an objective Law which gives us a basis for subjective “values.”

Agreeing with Lewy and Bennett, Feder hopes to restore the family to its rightful place in America. Though he addresses a host of items, family-related issues dominate this collection. He specializes in illustrating the more bizarre and outrageous aspects of American life, writing with a slash-and-bum style which either awakens or antagonizes. Such anecdotes, unlike the meticulous research of Lewy and Bennett, may not tell the whole truth, but they surely serve as warning lights on a social engine which needs attention. Feder’s work helps illustrate the more analytical truths set forth by more scholarly authors.

For instance: the public schools, though funded by taxes exacted from middle class families, often promote anti-family education. Teachers in Atlanta, Georgia, were programed not to refer to parents as “husband and wife” lest kids from “alternative families” be offended. New York City’s “former Chancellor of Schools, Joseph Fernandez, distributed over three hundred thousand copies of a booklet informing students of their ‘right to have sex'” (p. 52). His aggressive tactics ultimately led to a parent-led resistance movement which culminated in his ouster, but he rather represents main-stream educational philosophy in Feder’s judgment. A “hot-and-sexy” AIDS educator, Suzi Landolphi, brought her message to a mandatory Massachusetts high school assembly. She danced “in the aisles with male students,” mouthed obscenities, and pulled “a condom over a student’s head” (p. 53). Such moves, in the public schools, undermine parental authority and encourage the destruction of the family.

The assault on the family has been spearheaded by attacks on fathers. “Patriarchy” has become a contemptuous code word for folks who disdain traditional families and men’s traditional roles. Where not ridiculed, dads have been dismissed as unnecessary. Though “women cause 54 percent of all severe family violence” (p. 67), men are generally the only figures portrayed when “spouse abuse” is discussed. A professor at Evergreen State College, Stephanie Coontz, scoffs at the myths of the 1950’s, the fantasies portrayed in Father Knows Best and Leave It to Beaver. In Coontz’s opinion, “day care, two-career families, and social parenting are swell” (p. 290). Traditional “families” can be replaced by more upto-date social groupings.

Feder demurs! Here, as in many other areas, he thinks Joe Nicolosi’s observation holds: “‘One of the beautiful things about a democracy is that social scientists can ruin a generation, and then come back twenty years later with our objective measures to validate what common sense should have told us'” (p. 95). But we need not change our authorities every 20 years! The “family values” Feder treasures go back some 40 centuries. They are those found in the Bible, in the examples of the patriarchs: Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The Bible provides the best model for families. It began in the beginning, with Adam and Eve. “Here is the Bible’s first great lesson, that by themselves men and women are incomplete, that each has psychological and spiritual attributes the other lacks, that in order to be whole (to live the harmonious existence intended by their Creator) men and women need each other” (p. 291). Commitment to family is one mark of devout Jews. Mothers, like Sarah, and fathers, like Abraham, are celebrated. Marriage is so precious, the Talmud says, that “‘Whoever divorces the wife of his youth, even the altar [of the Holy Temple] sheds tears for her”‘ (p. 294).

Yet divorce pervades America. Consequently, a dearth of fathers has blemished the social landscape. “The disappearing dad is the gaping wound at the heart of our social trauma” (p. 74). Forty percent of America’s kids live in fatherless homes! All sorts of social problems multiply as a consequence. Yet, Feder notes with amazement, “Society’s response to the crisis of the fugitive father is to tell men to be mothers” (p. 75). Following Dr. Spock’s admonitions, today’s dads are urged to become “Mommy No. 2.” Unfortunately, most men simply refuse to follow the script! Men can be good dads, but they will not deny their manhood. “If we want men to stay with their children and fulfill their obligations, we’d better start recognizing and extolling their special contribution to the family. Men have to feel needed. They need assignments, jobs reserved for them alone. Mr. Mom just doesn’t fill the bill” (p. 77).

Other issues attract Feder’s attention, though most of them relate to his deep concern for family and community life. He shows why the homosexual rights movement, especially when expressed in preferential legislation and “marriage” status, threatens the moral fabric of the nation. On another issue, abortion, Feder takes a strong pro-life stance, for abortion is about more than abortion. The deeper issue when dealing with homosexuality and abortion is the moral authority which either opposes or validates them. Autonomous individualism, emotivist ethics, easily embraces all sorts of behavior. Thus abortion-rights proponents clearly reject Judeo-Christian ethics in an effort to inaugurate their “secular/Utopian woridview” (p. 101). This view assumes that God does not exist, so “man is no longer imbued with holiness” and worthy of respect. Moral relativism and situational ethics follow, and pleasure becomes life’s summum bonum.

A pleasure-pursuing culture cannot long endure. Any study of history reveals this. Any study of biblical principles makes this clear. If America is to recover a moral basis, it will be, Feder thinks, by a return to the Divine Law, a biblical ethic. Feder’s forthright columns, though often abrasive and scathing, do at least awaken us to the concern of a non-Christian, yet devout moralist.