Basically Bad?

Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum — and in somewhat less strident tones, Mitt Romney — keep telling us that we as a nation are going to hell in a handbasket, and that only God can help us, and that He will only do so if we allow organized religion to exert more overt control over such institutions as education and government. Many Americans are clinging to these statements as if they were — well, gospel. The facts, however, may confuse things a bit.

It’s true that Americans are somewhat less religious now than they were a few years ago. In 1998, while Bill Clinton was President, 6% of Americans said they did not identify with a religion. By 2009, after eight years of George W. Bush and one year of Barack Obama in the White House, that number had risen to an average of 13%.1

To check the references used here, clicking on the superscript numbers will open the source documents in a new tab or browser window.

This statistic would seem to be a point in favor of the Republican candidates’ contention that the nation is headed for dark times, if we accept their premise that the only measure of a moral and responsible society is time spent in church. But Americans have not only been staying out of church, they’ve been staying out of trouble:

  • According to the FBI, violent crime fell by 13.4% between 2001 and 20102;
  • a study quoted in the June 2011 Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology3 found that abortion rates in the US declined by 8% between 2000 and 2008;
  • a Guttmacher Institute study showed that the teen pregnancy rate declined by 42% between 1990 and 2008, to its lowest rate in almost 40 years;4
  • and according to the Centers for Disease Control6 “from 1995 to 2002, birth rates for unmarried teenagers declined: The rate for younger teens dropped 30% for ages 15–17 years, and 12% for older teens. Between 2002 and 2006, the rates declined slightly for young teenagers and increased 5% for older teenagers.” The numbers show a fairly dramatic decrease in teen pregnancy during the Clinton years, followed by continued decrease among younger girls and a slight increase among older girls.

So where is the terrible moral catastrophe that is overtaking us as we speak? The numbers seem to suggest a correlation between moving away from religion and toward a more “moral” society, when “moral” is defined in the terms dictated by religion. In other words, the less people are engaging with (for example) organized Christianity, the more Christian their behavior is becoming. What does this say about the efforts of someone like Santorum, who advocates so strongly for the imposition of one religious doctrine — the one to which he himself subscribes — onto an possibly unwilling populace? As I’ve pointed out in a previous post5, choosing to do the right thing when there is no other possibility available is meaningless. Only when there are options, does that choice have a moral significance.

Human beings are capable of being stupid, cruel, selfish — you name it. But we’re also capable of leading day-to-day lives that are filled with compassion, charity, and respect for others, without being coerced, without the exhortations of the pulpit. Rick Santorum sees only the bad needing to be forced to be good, when maybe, underneath it all, good is simply what we are.

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