Five Reasons to Grant Religious Groups “Special Privileges” in Society

Wilfred McClay recently wrote an excellent cover-page essay for Christianity Today on the civic goods that religion provides to America. Many friends of mine might profess some level of skepticism about so-called “civil religion”; I understand and share some of those concerns. Nonetheless, Christians who encourage the secularization of the public square are falling for a harmful argument. In all kinds of ways, religion is good for public life.

McClay lists five reasons for offering religions “special privileges” in society. He makes a strong case. I would also commend his essays from The City, the journal of Houston Baptist University that I love. Here’s a swatch from his essay:

A fourth argument might be called the “meliorist” argument: Religion deserves an exalted place in American life because of the extensive good works religious institutions reliably perform. Consider the vast scope of charitable, medical, and educational activities still undertaken by religious groups today, not least the Catholic Church. It operates nearly 7,500 primary and secondary schools, enrolling 2.5 million students. It runs 5,600 hospitals (composing nearly 13 percent of American hospitals and 15 percent of hospital beds), 400 health centers, and 1,500 specialized homes. All told, the Church’s institutional network encompasses the largest private educational and health-care systems in the country. Catholic Charities USA is the seventh-largest charity in the nation (the second largest being the Salvation Army).

In addition, a growing body of social-science research correlates religious belief very persuasively with the fostering of generosity, law-abidingness, helpfulness to others, civic engagement, social trust, and many other essential traits. High-profile scholars as diverse as Byron Johnson, Arthur Brooks, Jonathan Haidt, and Robert Putnam have testified to these findings. Of course, there will always be hypocrites, charlatans, fakes, and abusers in religious organizations, as in all walks of life. But it would appear that, far from religion being a poison, as the late Christopher Hitchens liked to argue, it has, at least in America, been an antidote. It seems both inaccurate and counterproductive to disparage or downplay its many benefits.

Read the whole thing.

This is needed testimony. Christians care most about what Jonathan Edwards and others called “true religion,” the circumcision of the heart wrought by faith in the crucified and risen Christ. This is what we’ve banked everything on; this is what we’re giving our lives to promote, whatever line of work God has given us. And yet we also seek to stimulate a rich culture of religious life in our country. This is decidedly a secondary aim. It is not our foremost priority. The extension of the gospel is. But we must not make the good the enemy of the best. I fear that many evangelicals, especially the younger crowd, unwittingly fall prey to this trap.

This is of course a much bigger conversation, one that has many nuances and twists and turns. I am not arguing that Christians should seek to religiously coerce other groups. I am arguing, however, that the public square should be a religion-friendly place, not an anti-religious place. Christians should encourage this. We want to strengthen the freedom to worship according to one’s own convictions. We see that religions provide many goods to society, even if we have ultimate disagreements with those religions.

This is not to say that true religion, gospel faith, can only take root in a society like ours. The gospel can spread anywhere God wants it to, and has. But we are kidding ourselves if we do not realize that a society that has historically prized freedom of religion has aided and abetted the spread of Christianity in all kinds of marvelous ways. Yes, nominalism is a real problem. It is, one could say, a scourge. But this is not the fault of the First Amendment to the U. S. Constitution. Nominalism–faith in name only–is an ageless problem, and it is the responsibility of local churches, not the U. S. government, to guard the gospel through church membership and church discipline.

It is ideal to have a “cultural marketplace” for religion of the kind America has enjoyed for so many years. It is good that religion has had a major place in public life. We should want this to continue, even as we should work as a matter of first priority for the promotion of strong local churches and broader denominations that treasure Christ in a fallen world.

(Image, which I find interesting but do not endorse: Fox News)

  • John Evans

    I’m interested in seeing the data source used to support the idea that religiosity is associated with law-abiding behaviour and generosity. I have seen data from other studies that seem to indicate the reverse, and I would like to compare the studies.

  • Joseph Frickenstein

    I appreciate the civil and accepting nature of this article- it really is refreshing to see the religious side looking at the issue with acceptance and sanity. But therein lies the problem- the fact that this article is refreshing. Religious discussion in general is almost never like this, and (at least in my personal experience) those who follow religion are much less likely to tolerate differing views. Just look at the Evangelical Christians and the Bible Belt, who quibble incessantly over abortion, gay marriage, and evolution- such people are hardly receptive to religious diversity and freedom, or even SECULAR freedom. And history has shown that, while peace is often more effective than war (as the oft-cited example of Ghandi shows), tolerance is nonetheless often abandoned in favor of conquest (just take a look at how Native Americans were treated by the colonists- religion was not the main factor there, but still, conversion was often the order of the day; and even the Quakers, a sect of Christianity promoting friendliness and religious acceptance, were pushed aside by the fanatical Puritans). So while I appreciate the message and attitude of this article, I have to say that such an idea is fanciful so long as fanaticism, in Christianity and ALL religions, disappears, which is unlikely to occur. Until then, we are better off promoting a secular worldview, because you almost never hear about fanatic atheists or agnostics, and even when you do, they have never done the various sorid deeds which religious fanatics have done so wearily often.

    • ostrachan

      Appreciate your irenic tone, Joseph. Good to have you here.

      I’ve spent a good bit of time studying the Enlightenment. I’m not sure I see the philosophes and the secular world they tried to build as helpful. Have you looked into the character of a figure like Rousseau, who was a serial adulterer, and who abandoned his children? Things like that chill my blood. I’m not sure I see the kind of humanitarianism in the secular arena that some claim. I see a lot of posturing, but not a lot of action.

      Look at who has started hospitals, orphanages, mercy ministries, and much more. I think if you look honestly you’ll see that there’s not much fanaticism there, but rather a genuine desire to help the needy.