Church, State, and Compassion

In a 2016 survey by the Pew Research Center, 23% of Americans said they have no religious affiliation, up from 16% in 2007. Fewer than 40% of Americans report attending church on a weekly basis, but that number is probably inflated according to church leaders, who say fewer than 20% of members are in church on any given Sunday.

While church membership has been steadily dropping, a 2014 survey showed that the number of Americans interested in spirituality rose by 7% in seven years. And in 2017, those claiming to be spiritual but not religious increased 8% in just five years to 27%.

I’ve been involved with several churches in the spiritual-but-not-religious community over a span of almost 30 years. Such communities tend to be fiercely independent, with a common theme being a general distrust of religious authorities. Yet I have been surprised to learn that many members of these communities are perfectly willing to trust a different kind of authority – the government – to fix America’s societal problems.

From a spiritual perspective, there are three main reasons that anyone “spiritual” should not support government-mandated solutions.

First, for those who subscribe to any part of Christianity, Jesus never said we should create a political system to do the work he commanded. He could have focused on trying to get the government to improve the lives of the marginalized, but instead he went directly to them himself, openly defying religious and political authorities. When we use government, we are shirking our responsibility to be in direct relationship with those less fortunate, to be in community.

Second, when we use government to do our work for us, we deprive ourselves of the joy that comes from personally helping others. And by sending those in need to government-controlled resources instead of helping them ourselves, we deprive them of the opportunity to know us on a personal level and be able to decide whether they want to be involved in our community in other ways.

Third, government is the only entity that can legally use force to impose its will. I’m not talking about rogue police who shoot unarmed citizens and are essentially thugs on a government payroll. I’m talking about what could happen if you simply don’t pay your taxes. There is an important difference between doing something willingly and doing it voluntarily. Libertarians like to say that taxation is theft, but a more accurate word is extortion. Anything done by government is ultimately done through force or the threat of force, which is morally, ethically, and spiritually inconsistent with the teachings of Jesus or any other spiritual leader.

But I have hope, because two segments of the population growing even faster than the spiritual but not religious are millennials and political independents. Millennials are poised to overtake the baby boomer generation in total numbers by 2028, and political independents now comprise over 43% of American voters. Perhaps even more significant, over 50% of millennials identify as politically independent.

Fewer people are willing to trust or rely on institutional authority of any kind. In spite of what government and church leaders often say, humans are actually hard-wired to be compassionate. While some people argue that churches and government are needed in order to take care of the marginalized, charitable giving is at an all-time high – over $390 billion in 2016 (up 4.2% from 2015), and $281.86 billion of it came from individuals.

I have hope because political independence and spirituality without religion are both on the rise, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence. I have hope because there is no evidence that any of the trends mentioned above will change in the foreseeable future. The statistics are clear – we can and do take care of each other, and we don’t need authorities of any kind telling us how.

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