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Jewish World Review Feb. 29, 2000 / 23 Adar I, 5760

Betsy Hart

Betsy Hart
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An effective answer to social problems -- TODAY, WHILE WE HAVE THE BLESSINGS of a generally prosperous and optimistic age, not all is well. And as the presidential primaries progress, there will likely be discussion of the problems that refuse to go away, of crime and violence, chronic poverty, of teen depression, suicide, and pregnancy, of broken families and other signs of cultural demise. Despite decades of massive government spending and years of a robust and vibrant economy, these problems hang on. Some have become worse.

It's true there is a remedy proven quite effective against these maladies, but it is one that many of our cultural elite avoid. Some might say like the plague. It's simply this: good old-fashioned regular religious practice.

For one of the candidate briefing books of The Heritage Foundation, scholars Patrick Fagan and Joseph Loconte compiled reams of data on the benefits that religion brings to America's families and communities. The two do not put forth a sectarian manifesto, or even an apologetic for Judeo-Christian beliefs in general, nor do they suggest we unconstitutionally mix religion and government.

Instead, the authors simply assess the empirical evidence and conclude as a practical matter that like nothing else in America, sincere and regular religious worship can transform people and communities for the better. Apparently this is something that folks need to hear, since for decades many of our cultural "leading lights" have snickered at those who practice religious faith. The more traditional the belief, the louder the snickering. So, for instance, the Washington Post once famously claimed in a news story that followers of conservative religious leaders Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson were "largely poor, uneducated and easy to command."

But of course that's simply nonsense and bias, in contrast to what can be empirically shown to be the true benefits of regular religious worship.

For starters, as Fagan and Loconte report, the evidence is clear that church attendance is the number one predictor of marital stability, something so important for properly functioning communities. (Interestingly, one study found that "the highest level of sexual satisfaction was reported among religious women who were monogamous, married and 'conservative.' ")

In troubled marriages, couples were more likely to reunite when the separated partners worshiped regularly. Teens who are involved in regular religious activities and practice are also far less likely to engage in premarital sex. According to one study, the top cause of problematic teenage sexual behavior and mores is "the absence of religious behavior and affiliation" in the family. A teenage girl is most likely to abstain from sex when both parents and she consistently worship. Teens in religious households are also less likely to experiment with drugs and alcohol.

Consistent religious worship also significantly reduces rates of suicide and depression, and that holds true around the world. Its effectiveness in this area has been particularly noted when it comes to teens. On college campuses, those students involved with campus ministries made less use of college mental health services than their non-practicing peers.

Religious worship is also a tonic for crime and violence. Several studies have shown that in crime ridden inner cities, even when controlling for demographic, family and other variables, churchgoing is significantly associated with reduced crime levels.

Among their other findings Fagan and Loconte highlight a study of poor inner city minority students who are academically gifted. The study found that even in this already advantaged group, those who regularly worshiped had "better relationships with their parents, were more optimistic about their future, were more likely to dismiss racism as an obstacle to reaching their goals. . .and were more likely to see themselves as being in control of their own futures." In fact the gifted students with the "lowest church attendance rates had the highest concentration of pessimistic students."

None of this means that more regular religious worship, in and of itself, would automatically solve all of America's social ills. (And of course we have seen cynical, manipulative, or corrupt religious practice cause problems, not solve them.) But still the evidence is clear that when we consider the troubles facing our communities, troubles that public policy and money can never solve, all of us including our presidential contenders would be well-served to consider how the sincere practice of religion in America can be encouraged, instead of belittled.

JWR contributor Betsy Hart, a frequent commentator on CNN and the Fox News Channel, can be reached by clicking here.


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