Sunday, April 5, 2009

The Welfare State and Secularization

This article by W. Bradford Wilcox of the University of Virginia offers an explanation for why secularism is rising in America.

The last bastion of high church attendance and influence of Christianity on public life, America has, for the last century or so, resisted the trends toward secularization in the rest of Western culture, especially Europe. However, he quotes a new study that shows that the number of Americans who claim no religion now stands at 15%, up from 8% in 1990 and 2% in 1962. Religious service attendance in the 25-41 age group is now about 25%, down from 33% in the early 1970's, according to Robert Wuthrow.

Wilcox names two explanations for the decline and why it is likely to accelerate. First, he mentions the decline in marriage. Increasing numbers of young adults are postponing or avoiding marriage and childbearing and nothing gets people out to church like having a family.

The other factor that he thinks will accelarate the trend in future is the drastic expansion of the welfare state under Obama. The 2010 budget will bring government spending to about 40% of the GNP, within hailing distance of the European average of 46%. According to Wilcox, "The European experience suggests that the growth of the welfare state goes hand in hand with declines in personal religiosity." Wilcox then explains:

"A recent study of 33 countries by Anthony Gill and Erik Lundsgaarde found an inverse relationship between religious observance and welfare spending. Countries with larger welfare states, such as Sweden, Norway and Denmark, had markedly lower levels of religious attendance, affiliation and trust in God than countries with a history of limited government, such as the U.S., the Philippines and Brazil. Public spending amounts to more than one half of the GDP in Sweden, where only 4% of the population regularly attends church. By contrast, public spending amounts to 18% of the Philippines' GDP, and 68% of Filipinos regularly attend church."

I think this is an accurate statement of the empirical facts. Although Wilcox does not mention the North versus South disparity in rates of secularization, the general model holds. The question is why is this the case? Wilcox proposes the following explanation:

"A successful Obama revolution providing cradle-to-career education and cradle-to-grave health care would reduce the odds that Americans would turn to their local religious congregations and fellow believers for economic, social, emotional and spiritual aid. Fewer Americans would also be likely to feel obliged to help their fellow citizens through local churches and charities."

Now there is something in this assessment, but I think it is too pragmatic and rational. It portrays people as attending church as a rational, economic calculation and that seems much too reductionistic as an explanation for a complex human behaviour like religious observance. Yet, this explanation, it seems to me, does go at least part way to explaining the decline of civil society in general in the welfare state, insofar as altruism is one of the prime motivating factors for participation in civil society. There is something to the "Let the government do it" attitude, especially if people perceive that they are being taxed heavily.

But we could also look at it from a slightly different angle and say that the welfare state cultivates in individuals a sense of entitlement and security that makes for self-sufficiency. This self-sufficiency is highly prized in liberal individualist society and is often called "empowerment." It is seen as a good, even though it leads to selfishness and a loss of community.

What I'm wondering is if this sense of security fostered by the welfare state could be viewed as a personal attitude similar to what the Bible means by riches or wealth. I know that there are many people in Canada or the US who are much richer than those on government assistance of one form or another, yet in comparison to over two billion global neighbours these people are extremely rich. The question is whether or not this kind of economic security qualifies as being rich in biblical terms. If so, consider the following verses:

"The seed that fell among thorns stands for those who hear, but as they go on their way they are choked by life's worries, riches and pleasures, and they do not mature." (Lk. 8:14)

"No servant can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money." (Lk. 16:13)

"For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs. " (I Tim. 6:10)

"Keep your lives free from the love of money and be content with what you have, because God has said, "Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you." (Heb. 13:5)

Now, I realize that we are used to applying these verese to the wealthiest segment of any given society and implicit in that move is the covert denial that most of us are, ourselves, wealthy. This seems to be to be a rather pernicious little self-deception. I can imagine a memo from Screwtape instructing his protege to attempt to convince as many people in modern Western culture that they are, in fact, poor. At first, he might advise, get them to think they are "relatively" poor and then later quietly drop the "relatively."

It seems to me that we were not placed on this earth to vegetate, fornicate and prevaricate, but rather to struggle to earn an honest living, marry and raise children and be truthful about our financial status. It is a temptation to believe that we are poor, when we actually are rich. And it is a temptation to put our trust in the State for the provision of our needs instead of praying "Our Father . . give us this day our daily bread."

In this way, secularization is surely aided and abetted by the welfare state. But it is not merely a matter of not going to church for selfish motivations that were less than admirable reasons to go in the first place. It is far more serious than that. It is a matter of letting the Welfare State replace God and imagining ourselves as poor and hard done by when in reality we are greatly blessed. The irony is that the more we are blessed economically, the easier it is to be damned spiritually. Is it any wonder that the Bible as a whole is profoundly ambivalent about money and riches?

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