When Belief Fades, Civilizations May Fade, Too

American founder John Adams famously said that “our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” We are on the rather worrisome verge of seriously testing that proposition.

When the Pew Research Center this week released the fourth survey in its ongoing “Religious Landscape Study,” it again showed evidence that the United States is experiencing declining levels both of formal religious practice and of religious belief as a whole. The United States for many decades has shown significantly greater levels of faith than has Europe (which continues to experience declines from its already low levels), but in the last decade our country has shown a precipitous drop. The statistic that seemed most stark to me was this one: “49% of American adults now attend religious services just a few times a year, rarely or never.”

With this, as with so many other cultural factors, we tend to see (or think we see) a “tipping point” at which, once a position that has long been a minority one suddenly becomes a majority, an entire outlook or way of life appears to be upended. Active believers seeing this statistic — this near-majority, for the first time ever, of Americans as non-regular participants in organized religion — must wonder what it portends not just for faith but for society as a whole.

Unrelated to the Pew study, but by happenstance concurrent with it, noted Catholic writer George Weigel last week penned a warning along just such lines. Writing of the “God deficit” evident in Europe, Weigel posited that for reasons both religious and secular, the decline in the practices and understandings of Christianity leads to cultural decline as well.

Weigel wrote that as Christianity declines, so too does the commitment to the particularly Christian (especially but not exclusively Catholic) “social-ethical principle of ‘subsidiarity:’ the idea that decision-making should be left at the lowest possible level (as in classic American federalism). ‘Subsidiarity’ is a check against the tendency of all modern states to concentrate power at the center.”

(This is far from the only problematic result of declining faith, of course, but it is an important one.)

Among the benefits of subsidiarity, Weigel explained, is that it militates against the ultimate and deadly centralization of totalitarianism and that it also “implies respect for cultural difference” by letting local communities operate in particular ways best suited to them, as long as they abide by the basic laws and broad civic understandings of the larger society/nation.

Weigel says the European Union’s heavily centralized, heavily bureaucratized system runs afoul of subsidiarity — and that its stultifying regulatory regime (recently rejected dramatically in the United Kingdom’s “Brexit” vote) is a natural result of the decline in principled subsidiarity that is part and parcel of declining faith. Summarizing and endorsing the theories of other writers, Weigel argues that “it takes a certain kind of people, formed by a certain kind of culture to live certain virtues, to keep liberal democracy from decaying into new forms of authoritarianism.”

Weigel concluded: “It would be very foolish to think ourselves immune to a similar crisis of political culture.”

I think Weigel is right — which is why I think the Pew results are so disconcerting. Further, I think this year’s presidential election — with its two major-party candidates easily setting the all-time record for combined levels of unpopularity; with the particularly high levels of vitriol and anger evident both from the candidates themselves and in social media; and with both candidates advocating massive new centralizations of power or authority — is evidence that the crisis may well be at hand.

Some will scoff at the idea that the dots can or should be connected between growing faithlessness and growing civic discord. This is the sort of theory that cannot be fully empirically proved. But it’s certainly worth consideration. And, if the theory is right, as I believe it is, then it is certainly up to believers to redouble our efforts to make faith attractive enough again so that the trend is reversed, the tipping point never gone beyond — and the “God deficit” never so large that it cannot be overcome.