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By extolling freedom of
religion in the schools,
President Bill Clinton has
raised the level of debate on
the importance of religion to
American life. [2] The time is
ripe for a deeper dialogue on
the contribution of religion to
the welfare of the nation.
America has always been a
religious country. "Its first
Christian inhabitants were
only too anxious to explain
what they were doing and
why," explains historian Paul
Johnson. "In a way the first
American settlers were like the
ancient Israelites. They saw
themselves as active agents of
divine providence." [3] Today,
he adds, "it is generally
accepted that more than half
the American people still
attend a place of worship over
a weekend, an index of
religious practice unequaled
anywhere in the world,
certainly in a great and
populous nation." [4]
At the heart of religious
practice is prayer: Americans
pray even more than they go
to church. According to a
composite of surveys, 94
percent of blacks, 91 percent
of women, 87 percent of
whites, and 85 percent of men
regard themselves as people
who pray regularly. Some 78
percent pray at least once per
week, and 57 percent pray
daily. Even among the 13
percent of the population who
call themselves agnostics or
atheists, some 20 percent pray
daily. [5]
When policymakers consider
America's grave social
problems, including violent
crime and rising illegitimacy,
substance abuse, and welfare
dependency, they should heed
the findings in the
professional literature of the
social sciences on the positive
consequences that flow from
the practice of religion. [6]
For example, there is ample
evidence that:
The strength of the family
unit is intertwined with the
practice of religion.
Churchgoers [7] are more
likely to be married, less
likely to be divorced or
single, and more likely to
manifest high levels of
satisfaction in marriage.
Church attendance is the
most important predictor
of marital stability and
The regular practice of
religion helps poor persons
move out of poverty.
Regular church attendance,
for example, is particularly
instrumental in helping
young people to escape the
poverty of inner-city life.
Religious belief and
practice contribute
substantially to the
formation of personal
moral criteria and sound
moral judgment.
Regular religious practice
generally inoculates
individuals against a host
of social problems,
including suicide, drug
abuse, out-of-wedlock
births, crime, and divorce.
The regular practice of
religion also encourages
such beneficial effects on
mental health as less
depression (a modern
epidemic), more self-
esteem, and greater family
and marital happiness.
In repairing damage
caused by alcoholism, drug
addiction, and marital
breakdown, religious belief
and practice are a major
source of strength and
Regular practice of religion
is good for personal
physical health: It increases
longevity, improves one's
chances of recovery from
illness, and lessens the
incidence of many killer
The overall impact of religious
practice is illustrated
dramatically in the three most
comprehensive systematic
reviews of the field. [8] Some
81 percent of the studies
showed the positive benefit of
religious practice, 15 percent
showed neutral effects, and
only 4 percent showed harm.
[9] Each of these systematic
reviews indicated more than
80 percent benefit, and none
indicated more than 10
percent harm. Even this 10
percent may be explained by
more recent social science
insights into "healthy religious
practice" and "unhealthy
religious practice." [10] This
latter notion will be discussed
later -- it is seen generally by
most Americans of religious
faith as a mispractice of
religion. Unfortunately, the
effects of unhealthy religious
practice are used to downplay
the generally positive influence
of religion. [11] This both
distorts the true nature of
religious belief and practice
and causes many policymakers
to ignore its positive social
Religious practice appears to
have enormous potential for
addressing today's social
problems. As summarized in
1991 by Allen Bergin,
professor of psychology at
Brigham Young University,
considerable evidence
indicates that religious
involvement reduces "such
problems as sexual
permissiveness, teen
pregnancy, suicide, drug
abuse, alcoholism, and to
some extent deviant and
delinquent acts, and increases
self esteem, family
cohesiveness and general well
being.... Some religious
influences have a modest
impact whereas another
portion seem like the mental
equivalent of nuclear energy....
More generally, social
scientists are discovering the
continuing power of religion
to protect the family from the
forces that would tear it
down." [12]
Professor Bergin's summary
was echoed two years later by
nationally syndicated
columnist William Raspberry:
"Almost every commentator on
the current scene bemoans
the increase of violence,
lowered ethical standards and
loss of civility that mark
American society. Is the
decline of religious influence
part of what is happening to
us? Is it not just possible that
anti-religious bias
masquerading as religious
neutrality is costing more than
we have been willing to


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