While some non-religious variables factor into the issue Douthat says that studies point out another significant element. “The social goods associated with faith flow almost exclusively from religious participation, not from affiliation or nominal belief.” Where religious practice ebbs or disappears the benefits also disappear. In fact, religion that is merely nominal can actually have a negative effect. Divorce is an example. A recent study showed that regions with high populations of conservative Protestants actually have divorce rates that are higher than average in our country! At first this seems like quite an indictment, but it does not reveal the whole picture. It turns out that practicing conservative Protestants actually have much lower divorce rates than average. In other words, if people don’t live out their faith it doesn’t seem to have an effect on their behavior, but when they do live out their faith it does have measurable benefits. It seems that faith in name only, if it has any effect at all it is somehow negative. This same effect is seen in the rates of out-of-wedlock births, which are high among nominal Protestants but very low among those who actually practice their faith.
Yikes. That last statement is more than a bit disturbing. “Constraining religious actors” is a way of saying “trampling all over their civil rights and if possible removing them from public sight altogether.” Unfortunately Douthat’s statement, while not necessarily his own personal opinion, accurately reflects the thoughts of a large number of people in our society. It most certainly does not bode well for the future of religious freedom.
In the end this paradox really isn’t hard to understand. If supposedly Christian people don’t live in obedience to Christ we should hardly be surprised that they don’t reap the benefits of doing so. The surprise is that somehow a supposed faith that exists in name only actually has a negative effect on people’s health and choices. What should I, as a follower of Jesus, take away from this? I see two reminders. First, as our culture trends increasingly away from faith in Christ we should expect that we will see more and more secular attempts to “co-opt” the role of faith and impose their ideas using the power of the state. In other words, we had better be prepared for increasing opposition from our own society and our own government.
Second, we need not be intimidated by this turn in our culture. We should remember that even those who do not believe in Christ can see the positive effects of obedience to him. What is likely to happen in the coming years is there will be fewer and fewer nominal believers. Our society is going to become more black and white as the “gray” of those who have some remnant of Christian culture without the reality of faith disappear. In short the contrast between those who believe in Jesus and live out their faith and those who have no faith at all will become more obvious. In effect then, this gives those who actually have Jesus as Lord of their lives an opportunity to let his light shine ever more brightly in a darker environment.