In our opinion: The importance of faith in the community

Published: Sunday, Dec. 19 2010 12:00 a.m. MST

Brad Strobell performs with other members of the International Children's Choir during an Inauguration 2005 Interfaith Service at the First Presbyterian Church in Salt Lake City in January 2005.

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In the 1830s, the young French nobleman Alexis de Tocqueville travelled throughout the United States carefully observing its people and its institutions. When explaining the success of America's democratic republic to his countrymen, he commented at length about the critical role played by America's lasting religious devotion. He observed that religion was essential to forming America's democratic "habits of the heart."

Since those very early days of American life, our religious landscape has diversified significantly. Committed secularism, especially in the last 50 years, has also increased. Consequently, it is fair to ask just how critical faith is for fostering the habits of the heart required in a 21st-century industrialized democracy.

We believe that, in addition to having constitutionally-bound institutions of government, a vibrant democracy requires citizens to obey the law, to address and solve local problems cooperatively, to participate actively in civic life and to behave altruistically. Accordingly, we find that active faith, regardless of denomination, is the best tutor of democratic dispositions. And this is not just our opinion. It is supported by the best contemporary social science.

In 2006 and 2007, Robert Putnam of Harvard and David Campbell of Notre Dame rigorously surveyed a large and representative sample of Americans about the role of faith in their lives. Their painstaking analysis of this data appears in their critically-acclaimed book "American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us."

One of the unique contributions of their research is its capacity to parse Americans by "religiosity" (a combined measure of behaviors, attitudes and beliefs). Using their religiosity index, Putnam and Campbell show how the behaviors of religious Americans positively correlate to what Tocqueville would have called habits of the heart.

Consider some of their specific findings. Religious Americans are more generous with their time and money to both religious and non-religious causes. Religious Americans are more civilly active — they are more likely to belong to community organizations, participate in local civic and political life and work with neighbors to solve problems. Religious Americans are more trusting and altruistic. Religious Americans are happier. And religious Americans show greater respect for authority.

In effect, Putnam and Campbell confirm what George Washington argued in his Farewell Address, that "of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports."

Putnam and Campbell stress that the morally significant social networks fostered within active religious participation are more important than specific beliefs in fostering these positive behaviors. In other words, the fact of active participation in a religious community is more important than specific dogma. But regardless of what causes religious Americans to behave in so many socially-responsible ways, active faith is clearly just as vital for maintaining American democratic ideals in 2010 as it was in 1830.

It is odd, therefore, that some would try to push faith into the margins of social debate. The Founders understood that an established religion would never have the vitality and power of faith freely-chosen. Consequently, they prohibited the establishment of a state church. But that prohibition on an establishment of religion was never intended to exclude moral and religious considerations from democratic discourse.

Elder Quentin L. Cook is a Stanford-trained attorney who now serves as member of the Quorum of the Twelve of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He succinctly summarized this concern when he said, "it is essential that values based on religious belief be part of the public discourse. Moral positions informed by a religious conscience must be accorded equal access to the public square. Under the constitutions of most countries, a religious conscience may not be given preference, but neither should it be disregarded."

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