Brad Wilcox, a sociologist at the University of Virginia, is somewhat infamous for being one of the sociology department’s dedicated religious conservatives. Wilcox tends to view religious belief as a net positive, and is generally something of an advocate for measures which encourage religious belief in the United States. And while this isn’t a bad thing in and of itself, it does occasionally lead him to make arguments where he affirms the consequent. For instance, Wilcox has a piece in the Witherspoon Institute’s Public Discourse web magazine, where he argues that social conservatives should be wary of Obama’s moves to expand government, because — if European social democracies are any indication — a robust welfare state is the enemy of a vibrant religious community.
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 non-religious individuals.”
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.
The explanation here is pretty straightforward. There are some individuals who need religion to fulfill their spiritual needs, and will make their way to church and to worship regardless of the circumstances. For the majority of churchgoers however, their attendance and participation in religious services has more to do with material need. As Wilcox notes:
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.
The more a government provides for the material well-being of its citizens, the more likely it is that “fair-weather” believers will leave the church in favor of other activities, or nothing at all. This is a problem for Wilcox because he believes that religious communities and a robust atmosphere of religious belief are critical to maintaining the “moral fabric of families and civic institutions.” For Wilcox, President Obama’s expansive agenda is a threat to the very institutions which bind individuals to each other and their communities.
The problem of course, is that it isn’t that simple. In the social sciences, cross-cultural comparisons are very difficult, since you have to account for different norms, different demographics, entirely different institutional configurations, and a very different history. And these problems are only compounded when you are trying to measure fairly ethereal things like religion and religiosity. With regards the Wilcox’s essay, it simply isn’t enough to take the results of Gill and Lundsgaarde’s study and apply them to the United States. I mean, circling around the welfare state as the explanatory factor for declining religiosity makes sense, but it ignores the critical impact of culture and history on any religious climate.
I’m clearly not a sociologist, but if I had to hazard a guess, it would be that an expanded welfare state will have a marginal impact on rates of religious attendance and belief in the United States. Unlike Western Europe, which suffered through several centuries of a stifling, repressive central chuch followed by a century or two of vicious religious warfare, follwed again by several centures of a powerful church, the United States has had a relatively peaceful religious climate, and more importantly, an extraordinarily vibrant and diverse religious atmosphere. We live in a marketplace of religious ideas, and religious denominations of all shapes and sizes compete vigorously for the attention of American believers.
This means two things for American religion: first that Americans are not on the whole hostile to religion or its effects, and second, that American religion is always moving and never stagnant. The oppositie is true in Western Europe; there are many fewer religious denominations (I think the Catholic Church remains the largest), and those that exist have stagnated for decades. If the presence of a welfare state has an impact on religious belief, it is only compounded by the state of European religion, and vice versa, mitigated by the state of American religion. And what’s more, for many communities in the United States — I’m thinking of Southern whites and African-Americans in particular — religion plays a huge part in civic life, and I doubt that will change even if the government’s reach is (barely) extended.
(h/t to Dmitry)