U.S. Religiosity in a Self-Imposed Straightjacket. (Viewpoint)

By Bryjak, George J. | National Catholic Reporter, March 28, 2003 | Go to article overview
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U.S. Religiosity in a Self-Imposed Straightjacket. (Viewpoint)


Bryjak, George J., National Catholic Reporter


A recent international survey conducted by the Pew Research Center found six in 10 Americans agreeing that "religion plays an important role in their lives," by far the highest of any modern industrial society investigated. This figure represents approximately twice as many self-proclaimed religious adherents as reside in Great Britain, Italy and Canada, and about five times more than in France, the Czech Republic and Japan.

The paradox of the Pew findings in the wealthy nations surveyed is that high religious affiliation is associated with low levels of equality across societal institutions and policies and vice versa. For example, a 2001 World Health Organization report of 191 countries found that the United States ranked 37th in overall health care services behind almost every European country as well as Morocco, Oman and Costa Rica. A just-released study by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation concluded that nearly one in three non-elderly Americans (about 75 million people) did not have medical coverage for some period over the past two years. While many believers in the this country are apparently content with a medical system that excludes millions of their fellows, individuals in significantly less religious France and Italy have created health care systems ranked one and two in the world respectively.

We have the highest degree of economic inequality in the industrialized world. The Washington-based Economic Policy Institute notes that while the wealthiest 1 percent of stockholders account for just under 50 percent of all stocks by value one of every six children lives below the official poverty line.

Full-time working women earn about 77 percent of what full-time employed men do in the United States. In Great Britain, Italy and France, these figures are 80, 82 and 88 percent respectively. Among modern industrial states, Japan alone lags substantially behind the United States in economic gender equity.

Only the United States continues to execute offenders--including, on occasion, mentally retarded individuals--despite recent findings that the criminal justice system is replete with errors, and that the capital punishment convictions of factually innocent defendants are hardly uncommon.

At a time when most prosperous nations have a system of compulsory military service, the United States maintains voluntary armed forces. Fighting and dying on the battlefield have become the plight of lower- and middle-class males, while sons of the wealthy stay home and enjoy the economic benefits of their privileged positions.

What is it about our religious beliefs or the relation between religion and other institutions that has prevented the weaving of the golden rule into the fabric of American society as it has in more secular nations? In other words, why do the religious convictions of so many Americans exist in a kind of schizophrenic detachment from their brethren in the wider social world?

To begin, we seem to be of two minds when it comes to social justice issues and the application of the "do unto others" dictum. As far as helping victims of tragedies such as the recent terrorist attacks and natural disasters, we Americans have always been generous with our time and money. However, as a nation we are unwilling to institutionalize our individual good will on issues such as universal health coverage, a livable minimum wage, and gender and racial equality. We are loath to help people designated as unworthy of societal generosity, as in the distinction between the "deserving" and the "undeserving" poor.

A partial explanation for the gap between religious beliefs and societal practice can be found in the nation's intellectual history. English philosopher and pioneering sociologist Herbert Spencer (1820-1903), whose Social Darwinism swept across the United States in the 1880s (the term "survival of the fittest" comes from Spencer, not Charles Darwin), gave a pronounced boost to a mindset of rugged individualism already entrenched in this country.

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