More than 200 years ago, in his 1796 farewell Presidential address, George Washington issued a stern warning. He described religion and morality as “indispensable supports,” the “great pillars of human happiness,” and the “firmest props of the duties of men and citizens,” and, prophetically, alerted us to the harm that would come if America ever drove religion and morality from our society:
Let it simply be asked: Where is the security for property, for reputation, for life, if the sense of religious obligation desert the oaths, which are the instruments of investigation in courts of justice? And let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that National morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.
Looking around today, we see so many examples of the breakdown George Washington warned against. Even as many Americans enjoy unimagined wealth, comfort, and technological convenience, our society is suffering. Broken families, wanton crime, drug dependence, widespread depression, and suicide are common features of daily life in communities from coast to coast.
At The Heritage Foundation, our vision is to build an America where freedom, opportunity, prosperity, and civil society flourish. To ensure the long-term sustainability of our great nation, we must not only promote economic opportunity and limited government, but also care for and nurture the “third sector”—civil society.
But what exactly is civil society? And what is religion’s role in it?
As comprehensively defined by the World Bank, civil society is “the wide array of non-governmental and not-for-profit organizations that have a presence in public life, expressing the interests and values of their members or others, based on ethical, cultural, political, scientific, religious or philanthropic considerations.” Reflecting its breadth of participants, civil societies are enlivened by “community groups, non-governmental organizations, labor unions, indigenous groups, charitable organizations, faith-based organizations, professional associations, and foundations.”
In short, civil society is a fusion of many different types of associations. Given that only a subset of these associations relates to faith and religion, why do I believe religion is so important to civil society, and why did Heritage include a flourishing civil society in its vision statement?
The answers to those two questions are remarkably similar. Religion plays as central a role in civil society as civil society plays in the vision for a better world that propels Heritage forward.
Since fully understanding how religion plays into civil society hinges on how one views religion, we first need to clarify what we mean by it. Is the exercise of faith simply a response to the unknown or a social convenience? If so, the value of religion is merely tangential, much as scaffolding is to a structure. Alternately, is the exercise of faith borne of a sincere conviction in the existence of God? If so, then religion is the foundation on which people of faith must build all else.
If we believe, as I do, that God and religion play a vital role in civil society, then the circumstances now surrounding us are deeply troubling. After all, we are reminded—often painfully—that the health of a civil society is dependent on religious expression and liberty.
I believe that is what George Washington was urging us to always remember. But, looking around today, it’s a truth that seems to have been forgotten. Weekly church attendance is down among many Americans, and young people are more likely to consider religion unimportant. Among those who do believe in a higher power, only a slim majority of Americans now believe in the God of the Bible.
Meanwhile, the presence of religion in the public square has shrunk dramatically, with prayer banished from classrooms, the Ten Commandments removed from public settings, and even the traditional greeting of “Merry Christmas” often pushed aside in favor of “Happy Holidays.”
Faith and fellowship are receding from the daily lives of millions of Americans, and the implications of this trend seem graver for our society today than ever before. Because as they recede, ever-greater degrees of disconnectedness, despair, violence, and death are filling the void.
Is this mere coincidence? I think not. Proverbs tells us, “Where there is no vision, the people perish.” And absent the clarity and calm that faith brings to so many, our people are indeed perishing.
Not coincidentally, destructive choices are becoming the norm. Teens are choosing to have premarital sex in order to seek love and, perhaps, identity. Adults are choosing not to get married, often relegating their children to life in single-parent households. Families are choosing not to attend church or raise their children in the faith. And generations are choosing to move apart rather than remain together to care for the young and old alike.
But just as our choices have led to these outcomes, so too can they lead us to a better place. Against Washington’s warning, we have excluded religious principle from our national morality. And in so doing, we have shaken the foundation on which our society was built, with terrible results. This corrosion can be corrected, if we so choose, and restoring religion’s role in our civil society—in our homes, communities, and country—is a critically important place to start.
Why? Because while the exercise of faith serves many functions, its paramount role has been—and, I believe, must again be—this: Religion is the foundation of a civil society.
This piece originally appeared in Stanford Social Innovation Review