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Free exercise of religion needs strong protection.

Declining religiosity in America affects more than just the size of congregations gathering to worship. It undermines foundations of social aid that much of the country — even the nonreligious — depend on.

The U.S. enjoys a relatively high degree of religious freedom compared to restrictive states, such as India, China or Iran, according to Pew Research Center data. But America also faces a rise of antagonism toward faith groups and a decline in a majority trust that religion has a role to play in solving social problems.

One concern is partisanship and public hostility could make it difficult for faith groups to thrive. As Melissa Rogers, former President Barack Obama's faith adviser, told a panel discussion last year, “There is more of a sense among some progressives of an antagonism toward faith or antagonism toward faith groups that don't totally buy into a progressive package of policies.”

But there should be room enough for both tolerance and religious worship in the public square. Without a strong bedrock of religious activity, the power of these institutions to maximize the good they do diminishes.

Volunteer work is an obvious benefit of religious association, as studies continue to show weekly worshippers volunteer at much higher rates than other Americans. But volunteering is only a snippet of the larger prosocial benefits religions offer, according to Karl Zinsmeister, writing for Philanthropy Roundtable.

Charitable giving, says Zinsmeister, is “one of the clearest markers of U.S. exceptionalism.” Americans give more generously than almost every other nation. A full one-third of contributions go toward religious causes, but that fraction is grossly underestimated, notes Giving USA.

Those religious causes feed and shelter the homeless, facilitate occupational services, expand educational opportunities and service charitable hospitals. They also do the same overseas. Religious organizations reportedly give four and half times more to foreign countries than the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, according to Zinsmeister.

Religious institutions also provide disaster relief. These organizations benefit from often being closer to the destruction than government agencies, which means they can more effectively dole out their aid. “A lot of times, faith-based groups are the first to get in. Sometimes it takes FEMA a week or two,” retired police officer John Kincaid told the Deseret News. Victims seek refuge in houses of worship, while many find spiritual strength through attending services.

And for those worried about associational decline, church activity makes up almost half of all social interactions in the U.S., according to Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam.

Yet, recent trends jeopardize the ability of faith groups to deliver these services. Should falling rates of participation, shrinking budgets and public hostility hamper religion’s role in improving social situations, it’s more than likely a less efficient and compassionate intermediary will fill the gap.

21 comments on this story

One action is to simply involve faith groups in the policy arena. Ask for input. See what faith groups do well and where government needs to supplement. Faith leaders have experience to offer, and their input could not only inform politicians but also foster goodwill between lawmakers with seemingly disparate agendas.

The free exercise of religion needs strong protection, not just for the spiritual well-being of worshippers, but to also preserve the irreplaceable good that faith groups administer to all Americans.