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Why America Needs Religion

Recently, University of Chicago professor Derek Neal undertook a study of the education of urban minority students, the same ones who are the much-vaunted “at risk” students regularly paraded out whenever the body politic even contemplates any change in the educational status quo. After exhaustive research and comparison between the public and private (including parochial) education systems, Professor Neal concluded that there “is something different about the curriculum in Catholic schools that gives urban minorities a significant advantage over their public school peers.” What exactly that “something different in the curriculum” is, Professor Neal did not elaborate on.

However, the answer to what that mysterious difference is can be found in the pages of Guenter Lewy’s little volume Why America Needs Religion. The book’s title suggests that it was a standard critique of the ethical and cultural relativism that pervades much of contemporary America with its insidious notion of the impossibility of adjudicating between the competing claims of pluralistic society with a diversity of moral beliefs and lifestyles–the type of thing that could be expected from a Richard John Neuhaus, a Carl F. H. Henry, or a Francis A. Schaeffer. In fact, this book began as the exact opposite. Its author, a professor emeritus of political science at the University of Massachusetts whose previous works include Religion and Revolution and Peace and Revolution: The Moral Crisis of American Pacifism, set out, by his own admission, to ridicule the propositions of the above-mentioned gentlemen that the crisis of the age is a crisis of unbelief and to prove the attack on secular modernity “to be a danger to individual liberty as well as an affront to people of goodwill who happened to be agnostics or atheists.”

However, a funny thing happened along Professor Lewy’s way: He discovered that the positions he supported and took for granted were, on second thought, not as convincing as he had assumed. In fact, he realized that, at least with regard to “certain crucial moral issues concerning the meaning of life and death,” he had more in common with religious moralists than with secular humanists. In short, he concluded that Neuhaus, Henry, Schaeffer, and company were right, after all.

After a long–and, at times, rather pedantic–historical survey in which he contrives to balance the claims of those who see Christianity as the source of moral inspiration for Western civilization and those who condemn it as the force for intolerance and ignorance, Professor Lewy’s argument boils down to a rather simple postulate: In order to sustain a decent moral order, America needs traditional religion. His case is made in two chapters.

In the third, titled “The Culture of Modernity and Its Social Consequences,” Professor Lewy asks whether secular modernity has promoted the decline of the family and the rise of the underclass. He does a Herculean task of digesting a wealth of data available for the obvious: That while most members of the underclass are poor, membership in the underclass is neither synonymous with poverty nor the result of poverty or abandonment by society. Rather, neither structural trends nor social barriers can conclusively explain the growth of the underclass. As Professor Lewy notes, “just as the modern welfare state had succeeded in alleviating most causes of poverty there arose in our inner cities a new form of long-term poverty accompanied by various kinds of self- destructive behavior.”

The inevitable conclusion is that the cultural ethos of secularism with its attendant radical individualism has undermined traditional values such as civic virtue, family solidarity, and social solicitude. The spread of secularism has weakened religious belief and thereby further eroded traditional values such as self-restraint, responsibility, and accountability. While it would be overly simplistic to ascribe the emergence of the new underclass exclusively to changes in values, there can be little doubt that the secularist cultural trends have been a crucial factor.

The fifth chapter, “Religiousness and Moral Conduct: Are Believing Christians Different?,” begs the question of whether the Christian faith transforms the lives of those who take their religion seriously. In particular, Professor Lewy examines the questions of juvenile delinquency, adult crime, prejudice and intolerance, single parenting, and divorce, and concludes that the vast majority of social science research supports the finding that the minority of Christians who take their religion seriously (as opposed to the nominal Christians of the Christmas-and-Easter variety) have significantly lower rates of moral failure and social ills than any other groups studied. Ever the nonbeliever, the professor concludes modestly that “it may be that worship and the feeling of being loved by God indeed produce definite changes in a person’s behavior.”

In the end, Professor Lewy still does not believe in God (he now calls himself a “nontheist” rather than a secular humanist), although he sheepishly admits to finding that he really has more in common with religious than with secularist thinkers. He thus proposes cooperation between believers and nontheists against the common secular foe. Just how far such an entente could go, however, is debatable. Nontheists are indeed capable of good works. Nonetheless, lacking love of God, they are, in Professor Lewy’s own words, “not likely to produce a Dorothy Day or a Mother Teresa.”

Meanwhile, back in Chicago, public schools chief Paul Vallas announced in the wake of Professor Neal’s study that he is close to unveiling a “restructuring plan” that includes a component to “develop a character education curriculum.” The tragedy of such a plan would be that while it would acknowledge that education must be based on a foundation of values, it would refuse to see the true basis for all human morality: God. Moral reasoning can inform a conscience, but it cannot create one. That requires faith in an ultimate power who is the guarantor of an absolute standard of right and wrong clearly defined and not subject to ever-changing interpretations.

Professor Neal and Superintendent Vallas would do well to alter the focus of their educational strategies. Rather than looking for mysterious–or rather, not so mysterious but politically incorrect to name–differences between public and private (and parochial) school curricula, they would do well to explore the educational outcomes based on the role of religion in the lives of the “at risk” students and their families. They will no doubt discover, as did Professor Lewy, that the most successful students–whether they be enrolled in parochial, private, or public schools–will be those raised in environments where traditional religion and traditional religion’s God influences daily moral decisions. The only risk of such a study would be that it would only verify Lewy’s prescient thesis. Then what would they do?