That’s the question posed by Tufts professor Peter Levine, director of that university’s Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE), in a recent op-ed for Religion News Service. He asks if the growing (?) number of young adults having no affiliation with any particular religion will have an impact on civic and political engagement:
…political movements in America have often drawn on religious movements for recruitment, leadership, financing, and moral vision. That was true, for example, of abolitionism, of Prairie Populism in the 1890s, of the civil rights movement of the 1950s and ’60s, and of the United Farm Workers’ struggles on behalf of migrant workers.
Perhaps society can or will develop functional equivalents or replacements for churches and other congregations. Denominations have done harm as well as good, and there may be other paths to worldly justice and happiness. But equivalents will have to meet several demanding criteria.
First off, churches, synagogues, mosques, etc. “are not dependent on civic motivations for recruitment,” yet once new members join, “they have opportunities (to varying degrees) to develop leadership skills, networks, and concern for public issues.” Levin’s observations about recruitment, networking, and leadership development mirror those of political scientist Allen Hertzke in his analysis of faith-based human rights advocacy, Freeing God’s Children. I had my Human Rights in International History students read Hertzke this semester, partly to help them think about the challenges facing other kinds of nongovernmental organizations — like those of whom Levin writes:
In contrast, most of today’s civic and political organizations ask people specifically to work on social or political causes. Many people are not very interested in public issues, and they are unlikely to join. If religious congregations continue to weaken, we will need new methods for recruiting a wide range of people into civic life.
Levine doesn’t rule out the emergence of such methods, but he’s less than certain this will happen:
Religions also appeal to deep moral commitments. While you do not have to be religious to be moral, being a good citizen requires commitments to other people — and perhaps to nature — as intrinsically valuable. Those commitments do not come from science or reason. In fact, science suggests that people are dramatically unequal and that nature is fully exploitable. So responsible people develop “faith-based” commitments. Secular equivalents must be at least as powerful.
(At his personal blog, he adds another example of this theme that was cut for space from the op-ed: the impact on his Latina parishioners when a Catholic priest in San Antonio reads the “dry bones” passage from Ezekiel 37. “I propose that the original quality and the long history of Ezekiel’s poetry explain its political power,” writes Levine. “Secular equivalents must match this depth of resonance.”)
This theme has also came up in the Human Rights class, where we earlier read Lynn Hunt’s Inventing Human Rights, a historical account of the emergence of “rights-talk” in the late 18th century. In her conclusion, she questions whether (as most secular rights activists seem to believe) a “combination of rational invocations of rights principles and emotional appeals to fellow feeling can make empathy morally effective,” or if “some sense of higher religious duty needs to be activated in order to make empathy work” (p. 210).
Now, my students and I are part of a Christian learning community and spending a semester together studying human rights, so we’re no doubt prone to agree with Levine that religion is a powerful motivator for civic or political engagement. But I’m not completely convinced that a less religious populace is necessarily a less engaged populace — particularly if we look beyond this country to those that have already gone through a prolonged period of secularization.
For example, consider a couple of recent Gallup surveys from January 2011. On one hand, the countries whose citizens were most civically engaged were not especially religious. Here’s are six of the top ten in that list, with the “Civic Engagement Index” score (based on giving money to charities, volunteering time, and helping strangers) in one column and the percentage of that country’s respondents (in a separate Gallup survey from 2012) to self-identify as “religious”:
|Country||Civic Engagement Index||% “Religious”|
The rest of the top four for civic engagement were New Zealand, Great Britain, Sri Lanka, and Thailand, which weren’t part of the 2012 religion survey. I’m not sure about the two Asian countries, but I strongly suspect New Zealand and Britain would fall somewhere between Australia and The Netherlands on religiosity. Could it be that the high levels of civic engagement in such societies suggests that it is possible to find secular (or, at least, post-Christian) motivators and methods of recruitment?
Then here are the six most religious countries (by that 2012 survey) to show up in the 2011 study of global civic engagement:
|Country||Civic Engagement Index||% Religious|
Of the sixteen countries in the “High” category for religiosity that also appear in the civic engagement study, half are below the median index score of 32 and half are at or above it. All of which makes me wonder if religion actually plays much of a role in fostering civic engagement — the principal Gallup finding was that level of economic development was the most important factor. Not surprisingly, it’s easier to donate money or volunteer time when your population has more disposable income and non-working hours.
But separately, Gallup found that more religious people were more likely to be more civically engaged. Those who said that religion was an important part of their life had a higher civic engagement score (34) than those who answered No to the religion question (25); the religious were more likely to help a stranger, volunteer time, and (especially) give money to charities than the non-religious.
What do you think: If millennials are less likely to affiliate to specific religions or denominations, should we be concerned that they’ll be more likely to withdraw from public life? Does Levine pay enough attention to the “spiritual, but not religious” category?