SEPTEMBER 22, 2003
Martin E. Marty
Sightings sights surveys. Opinion polls are attractive to social scientists, who are attractive to us. They provide one means at least of measuring what people think and do on the "public religion" front. All surveys are flawed, but we won't go into that today. Let's just treat them as "partial," "finite" and "limited" but still helpful.
I mention that because last week's column on Jewish population and loyalty trends had no sooner gone out and -- no surprise! -- some Jewish critics claimed that the data used for comparison were flawed. It's hard to devise perfect measures and follow them perfectly.
This week we turn to a survey that will not be accused of using bad comparative models -- what a relief! -- because there are, to my knowledge, no earlier or comparable surveys. In 2002, the National Opinion Research Council (NORC) at The University of Chicago measured charitable acts, as performed by religiously-active and religiously-inert citizens (University of Chicago Chronicle, August 14).
People were asked to recall acts of kindness, evidences of altruism, and empathy. To prompt memories, NORC provided a grid of 15 different kinds of altruistic acts. Here is where one gets a bit skeptical. I can't remember mine, if there were any, from yesterday, to say nothing of a whole year back. But NORC people have a good reputation and no doubt found ways to provide numbers satisfying to them and, they hope, useful to others.
The main finding: those who never attend religious services noted on average 96 acts of helping others in the year; those who were weekly attenders noted 128. No matter the age of respondents to this all-adult survey, no matter whether they lived in cities or in small towns, no matter whether people lived in small and intimate communities or large and impersonal ones, the main predictor of altruistic acts was participation in religious assemblies.
We already had evidence that the regular religious attenders are more involved with voluntary commitments of time and money to charitable causes than are others, but this is the first time they've measured the little acts of kindness. The headline reads: "NORC Survey Finds Americans Practice What They Are Preached." Tom Smith, director of NORC, notes that "most religions" urge the doing of good deeds. Regulars at worship hear that. Members of congregations are "nested" in communities that provide them opportunities.
Incidentally, after all my no-matters about the backgrounds of respondents listed above, I forgot one that matters: it turns out that 46 percent of the women and only 25 percent of the men were empathic (i.e., "feeling disturbed by other people's misfortunes"). The accent on feeling and remembering in all this is quite relative, a fact that makes the survey itself a matter of "relativity." Still, NORC provides us with a topic, some findings, and promptings for more attention in the future to an often overlooked subject.
This month's Religion & Culture Web Forum commentary is by Thomas J. Curry, a colonial historian and Auxiliary Bishop of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. The essay is entitled "Religion and the Constitution Confounded: Treating the First Amendment as a Theological Statement."
Our modern problem arises from the fact that government -- the Supreme Court especially -- has determined that the free exercise of religion is something guaranteed by government, that courts are to define and protect. As a result, understanding of the First Amendment is in utter disarray. Because judges assume themselves to be the protectors of religious liberty -- rather than a threat to it, as the Amendment proclaims -- they assume that they are the judges of what comprises that religious liberty. Thus they read the Amendment as containing substantive theological statements.
Invited responses to Bishop Curry's essay from Winnifred Fallers Sullivan and W. Clark Gilpin, both of the University of Chicago Divinity School, may be found on the forum's public discussion board. We invite you to engage the materials and offer your own thoughts on the same discussion board throughout the month of September. Past forums are also always available for review in our archive.
Coming up in October, look for a web forum commentary from Professor William Schweiker of the University of Chicago Divinity School entitled "Humanity Before God: Theological Humanism from a Christian Perspective." The essay anticipates issues that will be addressed at the upcoming Divinity School conference "Humanity before God: Contemporary Faces of Jewish, Christian, and Islamic Ethics," October 21-23, 2003.