Religiosity and the Future of Freedom
It should be no surprise that the latest data indicate a decline in religious attendance. It is widely reported that the fastest-growing religious group in America is the “nones,” those who answer “none” when asked on surveys about their religious affiliation. From 2004 to 2014, the percentage of Americans attending religious services weekly declined by 4.8 percentage points. This is not encouraging news for America.
At the time of our Founding, it was well understood that the Republic depended on a virtuous citizenry. The Founders designed a system of limited government meant to withstand a shortfall of virtue, but even they knew that virtue was the key to success in the republican experiment.
History teaches that religion is the main vehicle for the promotion and transmission of virtue. Many non-religious people are virtuous, but non-religious communities that fruitfully instill virtue in the next generation are rare. For this reason and others, political philosophers and sociologists recognize that religious practice contributes to the common good.
Religious practice — measured by indicators like frequency of religious attendance — is associated with a range of positive social outcomes. These include better health, education, relational, and general welfare outcomes.
The United States is blessed with a unique combination of robust religious freedom and vibrant religious life. As a member of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, I have seen how severely religious freedom is restricted — and how severely religious practice of the “wrong” kind is persecuted — in so many places around the world.
Although the problems in America are not comparable, domestic religious freedom is nonetheless under attack in its own way here. What is frightening about the decline in religion in America, especially as indicated by some of the most salient indicators such as religious attendance, is that it portends negatively for religious freedom. We are learning that people need to understand why religion is important in order to understand why religious freedom is important.
In this way, religious practice is just as significant a factor in supporting religious freedom as religious freedom is in supporting religious practice. That is, whereas religious freedom ensures the conditions necessary for religious attendance, religious attendance fosters the culture necessary to defend religious freedom.
The state of religiosity in America therefore raises critical questions about the future of public policy, especially with respect to religious freedom. The First Amendment comprises a bundle of freedoms, including speech, association, and religion, that ensure the right of all citizens to live according to the dictates of their conscience and their God, whether alone or in groups, in private or in public.
Like all of our natural rights, our “first freedom” is our birthright, and it is one that Americans, whose nation’s Founding exemplified this idea, should work to fortify in law and in culture. But Americans would do well also to remember that we tend not to value the freedoms we do not exercise.
— Daniel Mark is an Assistant Professor of Political Science and the Navy ROTC Battalion Professor at Villanova University.
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- To be sure, scholars like Byron Johnson at the Baylor Institute for Studies of Religion have pointed out that one factor contributing to the rise in the “nones” is that survey questions about religious affiliation may be failing to capture the diversity of religious identification today. See Byron R. Johnson, “Dispelling Rumors of Religion’s Demise,” in 2014 Index of Culture and Opportunity, ed. Jennifer A. Marshall and Rea S. Hederman, Jr. (Washington: The Heritage Foundation, 2014), pp. 28–29,
- Patrick F. Fagan, “Why Religion Matters Even More: The Impact of Religious Practice on Social Stability,” Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 1992, The Heritage Foundation, December 18, 2006,
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