The role of religion

We claim the privilege of worshiping Almighty God according to the dictates of our own conscience, and allow all men the same privilege, let them worship how, where, or what they may.

11th Article of Faith

When it comes to religion, Americans remain a God-fearing people. They are also ambivalent about the role of religion in public life, and are growing more and more concerned about what they think is a loss of moral direction - the kind of direction that religion itself provides.

This confusion was reflected perfectly in recent news reports. The latest publication to make that point was U.S. News and World Report (April 4, 1994), which commissioned a scientific poll of the way Americans feel about religion.

"About 95 percent of Americans say they believe in God or a universal spirit, and about 60 percent say they attend religious services regularly - figures that have not changed much since the 1950s. Only 9 percent of Americans profess no religion at all. More than 80 percent believe the Bible is the inspired word of God," said the magazine.

However, the poll also showed: "The rift between private faith and secular society is perceived by many to be widening. While nearly two out of three Americans say religion is gaining influence in their personal lives, a comparable number say it is losing influence on the country in general. Almost 90 percent say the nation is slipping deeper into moral decline. . . ."

That paradox between deeply held personal beliefs in God and a slipping moral code has long been a topic of concern from General Authorities of the Church.

Americans made the right to worship God according to the dictates of their own conscience a part of the First Amendment to the Constitution, along with freedom of speech and freedom of the press. Yet late last year Congress found it necessary to pass the new Religious Freedom Restoration Act to keep governments at all levels from interfering with religion unless they could prove a "compelling" interest in doing so. It's a reflection of how deeply Americans feel about religion that the act was supported by 68 religious and civil liberties organizations.

When it was signed into law, an authority of the Church said it was "the most historic piece of legislation dealing with religious freedom in our lifetime." Later, Charles D. Haynes, former president of the National Council on Religion in Public Education, pointed out that freedom of conscience, on which religious freedom is based, "is the foundation for all the other fundamental rights such as freedom of press, expression and assembly."

That viewpoint mirrors the Church's position that freedom of conscience is the greatest of all the freedoms. Only when men and women are allowed to worship freely can they receive the light of the gospel, and based on that, develop just and morally responsible societies where speech and the right to assemble can flourish.

Journalist Bill Tammeus, writing in the Kansas City Star on the role of religion in America, noted that "Religion is not simply to be tolerated - a very low standard, indeed. Rather, it is to be accorded at least equal footing with - and the same respect as - the right of free speech, the right to assemble peaceably and the right to petition the government for redress of grievances."

Despite the widespread belief in Deity, other statistics tell a grimmer story. Pete Du Pont, former governor of Delaware and a frequent columnist, noted that since 1965, almost every cultural measure shows decay. "The crime rate has more than tripled. The Department of Justice estimates that eight out of 10 Americans will be the victims of violent crime at some point in their lives. Illegitimate births are up 400 percent. The percentage of single parent families has increased 2 1/2 times." He links these sorry figures to a decline in the practice of religion. "The secular world does not provide a moral road map," he wrote.

As if to bolster this, a poll last month by Louis Harris & Associates reported that weekly attendance at a church, synagogue or other house of worship had fallen to 43 percent of Americans, down from 51 percent in 1986.)

This has led some observers to criticize "surface religion" where, despite a high level of personal belief, people may be unwilling to make the sacrifices that a vital religious life requires. Paradoxically, the churches that require greater commitment from their members, including the LDS Church, are among the fastest growing in numbers.

Still, as the U.S. News article noted, there are more churches per capita in the United States than in any other nation on earth - one for about every 900 Americans.

That in itself is encouraging, and good news for all people of faith and good will.

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