More Government Less God
While many social conservatives have
focused attention on Obama’s liberal social commitments, few have
considered what effects an expanded welfare state will have on
religious belief—or how these religious effects will in turn impact
civic virtue, personal responsibility, altruism, or solidarity. If the
European experience with the welfare state and religion is any
indication, the Obama revolution could well lead the United States down
the secular path already trod by Europe.
In his successful drive for the presidency,
Barack Obama went out of his way to cultivate churchgoing Americans.
Obama spoke frankly and fluidly about his faith, he participated in
Pastor Rick Warren’s candidates’ forum at the Saddleback megachurch, he
reached out personally and persistently to evangelical and Catholic
leaders, and his campaign targeted American religious groups like no
other Democratic candidate for president has in recent times. Moreover,
Obama and his campaign downplayed his socially liberal views, stressed
his commitment to tolerance and civility toward those with whom he
disagreed on social issues, and sought to underline the ways in which
his progressive policy positions were consistent with biblical faith
and Catholic Social Teaching.
Obama’s efforts paid off. In 2008, according to CNN exit
polls, Obama won forty-three percent of the presidential vote among
voters who attend religious services once a week or more, up from
Senator John Kerry’s thirty-nine percent in 2004. Obama did especially
well with Black and Latino believers. But he also made real inroads
among traditional white Catholics, according to a recent article by John Green in First Things.
His cultivation of churchgoing Americans has not let up since winning
the election. From his selection of Rick Warren to deliver his
inaugural invocation to his public support for charitable choice to his
recent remarks at the National Prayer Breakfast, President Obama has
sought to signal to the faithful in America that his administration is
no enemy to religion.
I do not doubt the sincerity of Obama’s religious intentions.
But while many social conservatives have pointed a spotlight on Obama’s
socially liberal policies (repealing the Mexico City Policy, for example)
few have paid attention to the likely impact his stimulus, bailout, and
economic welfare programs will have. One unremarked and unintended
consequence of Barack Obama’s audacious plans for the expansion of
government—especially in health care, education, and the environment—is
that the nanny state he is seeking to build will likely crowd out
religious institutions in America. In other words, if he succeeds in
passing his ambitious agenda, the Obama revolution is likely to lead
the United States down the secular path already trod by Europe.
To fund his bold efforts to revive the American economy and
expand the welfare state, Obama is proposing to spend a staggering $3.6
trillion in the 2010 fiscal year. Obama’s revolutionary agenda would
push federal, state, and local spending to approximately 40 percent of
Gross Domestic Product, up from about 33 percent in 2000. It would also
put the size of government in the United States within reach of Europe,
where government spending currently makes up 46 percent of GDP.
Why is this significant for the vitality of religion in America? A recent study of 33 countries around the world by Anthony Gill and Erik Lundsgaarde, political scientists at the
University of Washington, indicates that there is an inverse
relationship between state welfare spending and religiosity.
Specifically, they found that countries with larger welfare states had
markedly lower levels of religious attendance, had higher rates of
citizens indicating no religious affiliation whatsoever, and their
people took less comfort in religion in general. In their words,
“Countries with higher levels of per capita welfare have a proclivity
for less religious participation and tend to have higher percentages of
Gill and Lundsgaarde show, for instance, that Scandinavian
societies such as Sweden and Denmark have some of the largest welfare
states in the world as well as some of the lowest levels of religious
attendance in the world. By contrast, countries with a history of
limited government—from the United States to the Philippines—have
markedly higher levels of religiosity. The link between religion and
the welfare state remains robust even after Gill and Lundsgaarde
control for socioeconomic factors such as urbanization, region, and
literacy. The bottom line: as government grows, people’s reliance on
God seems to diminish.
How do we account for the inverse relationship between
government size and religious vitality? As Gill and Lundsgaarde point
out, some individuals have strong spiritual needs that can only be met
by religion. This portion of the population remains faithful, come what
But other individuals only turn to churches, synagogues,
temples, and mosques when their needs for social or material security
are not being met by the market or state. In an environment
characterized by ordinary levels of social or economic insecurity, many
of these individuals will turn to local congregations for social,
economic, and emotional support. At times of high insecurity, such as
the current recession, religious demand goes even higher. Witness, for
instance, press accounts chronicling the recent boom in churchgoing among Americans hit hard by the recession. Of course, many of those who
initially turn to the church around the corner for instrumental reasons
often end up developing an intrinsic appreciation for the spiritual and
moral goods found in their local congregation.
By contrast, the more the state steps in to reduce the
economic and social insecurity of its citizens, the less likely
fair-weather believers are to darken the door of a church on Sunday.
Now, to paraphrase Charles Krauthammer, Obama hopes to expand the size
of the welfare state by offering cradle-to-grave health care and
cradle-to-cubicle education to Americans. If he gets his way, Americans
will not have to trust in God, or their fellow congregants, to support
an ailing parent, or to help them figure out how to pay for their
daughter’s college tuition. Instead, they can put their faith in Uncle
To secularists and religious skeptics, this may seem no great
loss. Who cares if Americans substitute “In God We Trust” for “In
Government We Trust”? But as political scientist Alan Wolfe observed in Whose Keeper?, one of the primary dangers associated with
the rise of the nanny state is that “when government assumes moral
responsibility for others, people are less likely to do so themselves.”
Wolfe noted that large increases in welfare spending in Sweden, Denmark
and Norway over the last half century have ended up eroding the moral
fabric of families and civic institutions in these societies.
Scandinavians have come to depend not on family, civil society, or
themselves, but on the government for their basic needs.
The problem with this Scandinavian-style welfare dependency is that
many Scandinavians, especially young adults who have grown up taking
the welfare state for granted, are markedly less likely to attend to
the social, material, and emotional needs of family and friends than
earlier generations. As a consequence, social solidarity is down and
social pathology—from drinking to crime—is up. In Wolfe’s words, “High
tax rates in Scandinavia encourage governmental responsibility for
others; they do not, however, necessarily inspire a personal sense of
altruism and a feeling of moral unity toward others with whom one’s
fate is always linked.” Not surprisingly, cheating on taxes is on the
rise in Scandinavian countries, both because the social solidarity
undergirding these societies is fraying and because men and
women—especially high earners—are recoiling from paying the hefty taxes
associated with keeping their nanny states afloat (sound familiar?).
The dangers that Wolfe identifies in societies like Sweden
would likely be even more salient in America, which has a much lower
level of cultural homogeneity and collectivism than the Scandinavian
nations. In the United States, as Alexis de Tocqueville observed,
religious institutions have long provided crucial social and moral
ballast to the individualistic ethos of our nation. For instance, as
political scientist Arthur Brooks pointed out in his recent book, Who Really Cares, religious Americans are significantly
more likely to give to charity and to volunteer their time than are
secularists. In 2000, he found, for instance, that ninety-one percent
of regular churchgoers (those who attend religious services nearly
every week or more frequently) gave money to charities, compared to
sixty-six percent of secularists (those who attend religious services a
couple times a year or not at all); moreover, sixty-seven percent of
churchgoers volunteered, compared to forty-four percent of secularists.
This is why, even though Obama’s audacious agenda might provide
short-term relief to the economic and social challenges that now beset
us, over the long term the Obama revolution is likely to erode first
the religious and then the civic and moral fabric of the nation.
Undoubtedly, this is not the change religious believers who put their
faith in Obama last November are hoping for from this president. But if
the European experiment with the welfare state tells us anything, it
tells us that this is the change we can expect from a successful Obama
W. Bradford Wilcox, associate professor of sociology at the University of
Virginia, is a fellow of the Witherspoon
Institute and sits on the editorial board of Public Discourse.
He is currently writing a book for Oxford University Press titled Soul Mates: Religion, Sex, Childbearing, and Marriage among African Americans and Latinos. This article has been republished from Public Discourse.
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