I have a confession… I’m addicted to reading the news. I have three different apps on my phone for the news and I am constantly cycling through them throughout the day. I can’t really articulate to you why I read the news so much, I just like to know what’s going on around me. In the past few months, however, I’ve been noticing that Christianity has been getting a lot more press than it historically has. Surprisingly to me, the coverage isn’t overwhelmingly positive (the exception to this was this past week when the Pope visited the US; during this week the positive coverage has been wonderfully refreshing). While those that know me know that I am always in favor of a good debate, I’m concerned about the underlying theme of many of these articles. The vibe these articles give are that Christianity, and often Catholicism specifically, “isn’t keeping up with the times” and is “on its way out.” The news is quick to point out that our laws have moved past the lessons of the Bible, and therefore, the Bible is outdated. Usually, after reading such articles, I have to stop and truly wonder, does the world really believe that we don’t need religion? Religion plays a very important role in our (and any) society, and I wonder if people are beginning to forget.
Here in the United States, we are very proud of our separation between the Church and the State. And while it could be argued that we are taking that separation farther than it should be or it was intended (and this is a discussion topic for a different day), I continue to respect and support the fact that we need a line between these two institutions. But, if we have chosen to separate Church and State, then what is the role of each in our society?
The Role of the State
It is generally agreed upon that the State (a fancy way of saying our government), is responsible for the laws of the land. The people residing in (or visiting) our country are required to follow the laws, and people can be punished if the laws are not followed. Even if an individual does not agree with the law, they are still bound to follow the law, or face penalties. In theory, laws are meant to keep citizens safe, foster productivity, and, most importantly, protect our freedoms (In practice, the results may be debatable, but, again, a topic for a different day). Now in my mind that last item is the both the most important, and the most limiting job of our government. Protecting our freedoms, by design, limits what the government can and can’t influence. As a result of this limitation, one of the key things the government can’t govern is our morals. For example, the government can make it illegal to steal something from someone because stealing would cause a hardship on someone else. They can’t, however, make it illegal to be rude to someone on the road, since being rude doesn’t create a hardship to the other party, is open to interpretation, and would be exceptionally hard to enforce. So if the government can’t create laws regarding moral codes of conduct, where do we get that guidance from?
The Role of Religion
Now, the most important role of religion is to bring people closer to God. Christianity spreads the word of God to people throughout the world, regardless of geographical location, and educate people on God’s word. But in addition to that (very important) role, religion also provides society with its moral compass. Religion tells the people how to live their lives. The Church is critical in teaching the individual to love one another, take care of each other, and to treat everyone with dignity and respect.
The State may tell you not to steal something from someone because it causes a hardship, and is therefore illegal; but the Church tells you not to steal because it is the wrong and it harms someone else.
Unlike the State, the Church does not dole out punishment if you do not follow the morals outlined in the Bible and Church doctrine, but that doesn’t mean you don’t have to follow the moral code. The Church teaches that penalties can be severe once we leave this world. Since there will be penalties to not following God’s laws — but not ones enforced by the Church (in most cases) — it requires people to be self-accountable for our own actions. Now, we should follow the moral code not just “so we don’t get busted by the cops,” but because it’s the right thing to do and we need to do the right thing if we want to ascend to heaven after we die. The Church respects our freedom, and free-will. It’s on us to behave appropriately.
Consider, for a moment, the capital sins in the Catholic Church, commonly referred to as the seven deadly sins.
- Avarice (Greed)
These sins are not illegal. You will never be arrested or fined for these sins in the United States. There could be consequences (for example if you choose to fully embrace sloth, you could lose your job because you didn’t go to work), but there is no civil penalty if you choose to live your life committing every one of these sins. But if you choose to live your life committing these sins, do you think that other people would want to have relationships, personal or professional, with you? How fulfilled do you think you would feel?
The state cannot be responsible for enforcing a moral code of conduct without violating the freedoms of its citizens. The freedom to choose to follow the moral code of conduct is the same freedom that God granted us when he gave us free-will. We must look to religion for our moral laws and guidelines. Without the state, we run the risk of chaos. Without the Church, we run the risk of losing what it means to be human.
A common counter argument I hear is, “I’m not religious, but I follow the moral teachings of the Church.” I argue that while these individuals are much closer to the right answer than those who don’t follow any moral teachings, they are still missing a critical piece of the puzzle that makes society function… consistency. If we all have our own moral teachings we follow, then we are not consistent within our society as to what is “morally acceptable” and what isn’t. I may say that being greedy is “morally wrong,” but that it’s okay to have an abundance of pride. You may think that pride is hurtful to society, but lust is perfectly acceptable.
When the members of a society cannot agree on what is moral or just behavior for the society, it causes the entire society to be susceptible to conflict and discourse. Only when we are all united can we all feel fulfilled and at peace with one another.
The Challenge Today
Don’t believe me? Let’s take a brief look at our society today.
A recent Pew Research Center survey, called “America’s Changing Religions Landscape” indicates a shift in religious beliefs of our society. The study found that 34% of older millennials (classified as individuals born from 1981 – 1989) and 36% of younger millennials (born from 1990 – 1996) are unaffiliated with any faith, compared with 23% of Generation Xers and 17% of Baby Boomers. To put this statistic in perspective for you, 38% of older millennials identify as protestant and 16% as Catholic. For the younger millennials, 36% identify as protestant and 16% as Catholic.
There is an interesting article I read recently in Psychology Today (no, I’m not a psychologist, just curious) entitled “Why is Narcissism Increasing Among Young Americans?” I highly recommend reading the article; I think it’s very well written. The statistic that jumped out at me, though, was that approximately 70% of college students today score higher on narcissism and lower on empathy than did the average student thirty years ago. The article goes on to discuss possible reasons for this shift, though it provides no definitive answer. The author closes the article by asking “What do you think?” Since anyone who knows me knows never to ask me what I think without expecting an answer, here are my thoughts:
I think our society is becoming more narcissistic because we are lacking the moral guidance that religion offers us. We’ve gotten out of balance between the Church and the State. We believe that the State provides us all the rules and structure we need, without realizing that the State cannot create rules regarding morals without infringing on our freedoms. Because the Church does not have the influence it once did in our society, our society is forgetting that some sins, like capital sins, are wrong. After all, it’s easy to forget that pride is harmful and wrong if no one reminds us.
The Church teaches us to care for others and to be kind to others…to be good people. If we live our lives based on the Church’s teachings and love others, we will find that our lives are more fulfilling. If we learn treat others with dignity and respect, our empathy will growth because we will see others as individuals, with hopes, fears, hardships, and joys. When our empathy grows, we can learn to share our joy with others and share in their joy.
Our society needs the Church, just as it needs the State. Together, they create a balance of law and moral conduct that makes society cohesive; apart, our society becomes selfish, prone to conflict, and unsustainable.