Monday, May 28, 2012

Valuing Society

In his intuitionist account of morality,  The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, published earlier this year, psychologist Jonathan Haidt notes that in the United States "people in the least religious fifth of the population give just 1.5 percent of their money to charity. People in the most religious fifth (based on church attendance, not belief) give a whopping 7 percent of their income to charity, and the majority of that giving is to religious organizations. It's the same story for volunteer work: religious people do far more than most secular folk, and the bulk of that work is done for, or at least through, their religious organizations" (p. 265).
Such unsurprising findings seem to me to be also very relevant to the curent conflict between religious institutions in the U.S. and the current Administration in Washington. There are, of course, many different dimensions to this conflict. Likewise, there may be more than one explanation for how it came about - everything from a secular liberal ignorance about American religious life and the role of religious institutions in society to a secular liberal ideology that seeks deliberately to undermine American religious life and eliminate (or at least radically diminish) the role of non-governmental, especially religious institutions in American society.
Explanations aside, however, it seems clear to me that one important dimension of this unfortunate conflict is the threat (whether intentional or unintentional) to the very vibrant network of "faith-based" institutions, through which so much not just charitable social service but so much building of social community occurs in this country (as confirmed by the above cited statistics). If one adopts the more conspiratorial view that this is all part of a deep-seated secular ideological drive to eliminate such "mediating structures" (as they have often been termed) from society and make government the only agent of social service and the only source of human community, then perhaps one sees the situation in its starkest terms - and sees the requirement to oppose such policies in its starkest urgency. But whether or not the initiating impulse is truly so intentional, the end result may be the same. What is increasingly at issue is to what extent the post-modern liberal state is able and willing to accomodate a society composed of communities and social networks that are neither creations of nor dependent upon the state.
This is not about "Big Government" vs. "Small Government" - although it is in part at least about "Limited Government" (which is not the same as "Small Government"). As anyone familiar with my personal views knows, my political orientation tends toward the Hamiltonian. I favor a strong national State and an activist government - albeit one whose ultimate power is limited by its recognition of the necessary role of non-governmental society and especially of religious institutions in society. Apart from from the inherently and ultimately supernatural nature and purposes of religion, it seems evident that religion motivates and facilitates the creation and survival of human communities in a way no purely secular force has ever been able to do, and that society (and the State) benefit significantly from the social role of religious communities instituions.
As yet another example of the greater communitarian force of relgiiopus motivation, Haidt also cited Richard Sosis' study of the fate of some 200 "communes" founded in the U.S. in the 19th-century. Twenty years after their creation, Sosis' study found that just 6% of the communes organized around secular principles  were still functioning - as opposed to 39% of communes organized around religious principles (cf. Haidt, p. 256-257).
So, in addition to all the religious, political, and legal issues that are in play in this current controversy, we also as a nation need to be asking ourselves whether we really want a society, which is actually not a society at all but just an arm of government, one in which we depend almost exclusively on government for almost everything important. Or do we want to value and preserve a society with a vibrant life of its own, based on religious communities and social networks which base themselves on something other than (and more) than the power of the State. 

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