Could the rise in government spending—from economic stimulus to health care reform to education spending—endanger the vitality of religion in America? That’s a question University of Virginia Professor W. Bradford Wilcox discussed recently in the Wall Street Journal.
Wilcox zeroed in on a fascinating study entitled “State Welfare Spending and Religiosity.” The study’s authors, Anthony Gill and Erik Lundsgaarde, found an “inverse relationship between religious observance and welfare spending.” Put more simply, the more a government spends on welfare, the fewer people go to church.
This is why it is that church attendance is so low in welfare states such as Denmark and Sweden compared to countries like the U.S. and the Philippines—where government doesn’t provide cradle-to-grave assistance.
Anthony Gill hits the nail on the head. “For many centuries,” he writes, “average citizens and local communities have often relied upon the support of religious organizations to meet their various social needs, including assistance for the poor, counseling in times of crisis, and education for the young.”
But as the government grows, it elbows out the church and other voluntary associations. So Gill writes, “Many people have found that they can get the same services from the government without having to give a time commitment to the local church.”
Now, we would like to think that most people don’t stay in church just because they get can get help in times of trouble. But the truth is that many people first encounter the Church when they are in need: at a crisis pregnancy center, a soup kitchen, or in counseling for drug abuse or alcoholism. So as Wilcox writes in the Wall Street Journal, “Many of those who initially turn to religious organizations for mutual aid end up developing a faith that is as supernatural as it is material.”
Now, as Wilcox points out, there are other factors behind declining church attendance in America. But the recent turning of the body politic toward government as the answer to all our problems does not bode well for the Church.
Nor does it bode well for the future of American democracy.
In his classic book, Democracy in America, Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville marveled at how Americans could accomplish almost anything through voluntary associations—especially churches. They built schools, hospitals, sent missionaries all over the world. He wrote, “I frequently admired the boundless skill of Americans in setting large numbers of people a common goal and inducing them to strive toward that goal voluntarily.”
De Tocqueville doubted that government could ever accomplish all that American citizens could do through their associations. But he also warned that if government should supplant the good work of these associations, the American people would ultimately end up dependent upon government. And this, he said, would imperil not only American democracy, but “civilization itself.”
In times of trouble, it’s natural to echo the question of the Psalmist: Whence cometh my help?
Sadly, it seems that more and more Americans these days would answer, “It cometh from Uncle Sam.”