While many social conservatives have focused attention on Obama’s liberal social commitments, few have considered what effects an expanded welfare state will have on religious belief—or how these religious effects will in turn impact civic virtue, personal responsibility, altruism, or solidarity. If the European experience with the welfare state and religion is any indication, the Obama revolution could well lead the United States down the secular path already trod by Europe.
In his successful drive for the presidency, Barack Obama went out of his way to cultivate churchgoing Americans. Obama spoke frankly and fluidly about his faith, he participated in Pastor Rick Warren’s candidates’ forum at the Saddleback megachurch, he reached out personally and persistently to evangelical and Catholic leaders, and his campaign targeted American religious groups like no other Democratic candidate for president has in recent times. Moreover, Obama and his campaign downplayed his socially liberal views, stressed his commitment to tolerance and civility toward those with whom he disagreed on social issues, and sought to underline the ways in which his progressive policy positions were consistent with biblical faith and Catholic Social Teaching.
Obama’s efforts paid off. In 2008, according to CNN exit polls, Obama won forty-three percent of the presidential vote among voters who attend religious services once a week or more, up from Senator John Kerry’s thirty-nine percent in 2004. Obama did especially well with Black and Latino believers. But he also made real inroads among traditional white Catholics, according to a recent article by John Green in First Things.
His cultivation of churchgoing Americans has not let up since winning the election. From his selection of Rick Warren to deliver his inaugural invocation to his public support for charitable choice to his recent remarks at the National Prayer Breakfast, President Obama has sought to signal to the faithful in America that his administration is no enemy to religion.
I do not doubt the sincerity of Obama’s religious intentions. But while many social conservatives have pointed a spotlight on Obama’s socially liberal policies (repealing the Mexico City Policy, for example) few have paid attention to the likely impact his stimulus, bailout, and economic welfare programs will have. One unremarked and unintended consequence of Barack Obama’s audacious plans for the expansion of government—especially in health care, education, and the environment—is that the nanny state he is seeking to build will likely crowd out religious institutions in America. In other words, if he succeeds in passing his ambitious agenda, the Obama revolution is likely to lead the United States down the secular path already trod by Europe.
To fund his bold efforts to revive the American economy and expand the welfare state, Obama is proposing to spend a staggering $3.6 trillion in the 2010 fiscal year. Obama’s revolutionary agenda would push federal, state, and local spending to approximately 40 percent of Gross Domestic Product, up from about 33 percent in 2000. It would also put the size of government in the United States within reach of Europe, where government spending currently makes up 46 percent of GDP.
Why is this significant for the vitality of religion in America? A recent study of 33 countries around the world by Anthony Gill and Erik Lundsgaarde, political scientists at the University of Washington, indicates that there is an inverse relationship between state welfare spending and religiosity. Specifically, they found that countries with larger welfare states had markedly lower levels of religious attendance, had higher rates of citizens indicating no religious affiliation whatsoever, and their people took less comfort in religion in general. In their words, “Countries with higher levels of per capita welfare have a proclivity for less religious participation and tend to have higher percentages of non-religious individuals.”
Gill and Lundsgaarde show, for instance, that Scandinavian societies such as Sweden and Denmark have some of the largest welfare states in the world as well as some of the lowest levels of religious attendance in the world. By contrast, countries with a history of limited government—from the United States to the Philippines—have markedly higher levels of religiosity. The link between religion and the welfare state remains robust even after Gill and Lundsgaarde control for socioeconomic factors such as urbanization, region, and literacy. The bottom line: as government grows, people’s reliance on God seems to diminish.
How do we account for the inverse relationship between government size and religious vitality? As Gill and Lundsgaarde point out, some individuals have strong spiritual needs that can only be met by religion. This portion of the population remains faithful, come what may.
But other individuals only turn to churches, synagogues, temples, and mosques when their needs for social or material security are not being met by the market or state. In an environment characterized by ordinary levels of social or economic insecurity, many of these individuals will turn to local congregations for social, economic, and emotional support. At times of high insecurity, such as the current recession, religious demand goes even higher. Witness, for instance, press accounts chronicling the recent boom in churchgoing among Americans hit hard by the recession. Of course, many of those who initially turn to the church around the corner for instrumental reasons often end up developing an intrinsic appreciation for the spiritual and moral goods found in their local congregation.
By contrast, the more the state steps in to reduce the economic and social insecurity of its citizens, the less likely fair-weather believers are to darken the door of a church on Sunday. Now, to paraphrase Charles Krauthammer, Obama hopes to expand the size of the welfare state by offering cradle-to-grave health care and cradle-to-cubicle education to Americans. If he gets his way, Americans will not have to trust in God, or their fellow congregants, to support an ailing parent, or to help them figure out how to pay for their daughter’s college tuition. Instead, they can put their faith in Uncle Sam.
To secularists and religious skeptics, this may seem no great loss. Who cares if Americans substitute “In God We Trust” for “In Government We Trust”? But as political scientist Alan Wolfe observed in Whose Keeper?, one of the primary dangers associated with the rise of the nanny state is that “when government assumes moral responsibility for others, people are less likely to do so themselves.” Wolfe noted that large increases in welfare spending in Sweden, Denmark and Norway over the last half century have ended up eroding the moral fabric of families and civic institutions in these societies. Scandinavians have come to depend not on family, civil society, or themselves, but on the government for their basic needs.
The problem with this Scandinavian-style welfare dependency is that many Scandinavians, especially young adults who have grown up taking the welfare state for granted, are markedly less likely to attend to the social, material, and emotional needs of family and friends than earlier generations. As a consequence, social solidarity is down and social pathology—from drinking to crime—is up. In Wolfe’s words, “High tax rates in Scandinavia encourage governmental responsibility for others; they do not, however, necessarily inspire a personal sense of altruism and a feeling of moral unity toward others with whom one’s fate is always linked.” Not surprisingly, cheating on taxes is on the rise in Scandinavian countries, both because the social solidarity undergirding these societies is fraying and because men and women—especially high earners—are recoiling from paying the hefty taxes associated with keeping their nanny states afloat (sound familiar?).
The dangers that Wolfe identifies in societies like Sweden would likely be even more salient in America, which has a much lower level of cultural homogeneity and collectivism than the Scandinavian nations. In the United States, as Alexis de Tocqueville observed, religious institutions have long provided crucial social and moral ballast to the individualistic ethos of our nation. For instance, as political scientist Arthur Brooks pointed out in his recent book, Who Really Cares, religious Americans are significantly more likely to give to charity and to volunteer their time than are secularists. In 2000, he found, for instance, that ninety-one percent of regular churchgoers (those who attend religious services nearly every week or more frequently) gave money to charities, compared to sixty-six percent of secularists (those who attend religious services a couple times a year or not at all); moreover, sixty-seven percent of churchgoers volunteered, compared to forty-four percent of secularists.
This is why, even though Obama’s audacious agenda might provide short-term relief to the economic and social challenges that now beset us, over the long term the Obama revolution is likely to erode first the religious and then the civic and moral fabric of the nation. Undoubtedly, this is not the change religious believers who put their faith in Obama last November are hoping for from this president. But if the European experiment with the welfare state tells us anything, it tells us that this is the change we can expect from a successful Obama revolution.
W. Bradford Wilcox, associate professor of sociology at the University of Virginia, is a fellow of the Witherspoon Institute and sits on the editorial board of Public Discourse. He is currently writing a book for Oxford University Press titled Soul Mates: Religion, Sex, Childbearing, and Marriage among African Americans and Latinos. This article has been republished from Public Discourse.