The top 10 religious stories of 2019 – as selected by members of the Religion News Association – included: The burning of Notre Dame Cathedral, the massacre of 51 worshippers at a New Zealand Mosque, victims of abuse in the Southern Baptist Convention, a coming schism of the Methodist Church over LGBTQ issues, Sexual scandals by Catholic officials, Christianity in decline, etc. Are you kidding me? This is the best you can do?
Those aren’t religious news items, they are tragedies – highlighting the failures, the hypocrisy the intolerance of a few supposedly religious people. They are the obverse of religion. News yes. Religious news no.
As an example of religious news – much of which is never reported – during the Northern California fires in 2017 and 2018, Bethel Global Response swung into action in Redding, Calif., as a focus for helping families made homeless by a series of wildfires, providing food, clothing, toiletries, blankets, clean water and other necessities. An interfaith crusade including the Salvation Army, the Church of Scientology, the Nazarene Church, The Buddhist Tzu Chi USA, Samaritan’s Purse, the Billy Graham organization, and hundreds of other churches, governmental organizations, businesses and individuals came to help, with donations of money, supplies and sweat. One looks in vain for an accounting or acknowledgement of those groups and individuals who helped. They weren’t looking for a celebration of their work, but unless one participated, the only reporting was of tragedy, death, loss.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, for example, have been the subject of media attacks for non-support of LGBTQ issues, and detractors even built a website dedicated to rumors and attacks against them. The Church’s benefit to society, however, was studied by the University of Pennsylvania, and a report titled: Called to Serve: The Prosocial Behavior of Active Latter-day Saints, revealed an actual religious news story.
“This is the first study that focuses on giving and volunteering practices of members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints that has been carried out within LDS wards by a non-church-affiliated university,” said the report. “An average Latter-day Saint provides 427.9 hours of volunteer labor annually (35.6 hours monthly or 8.2 hours weekly). In comparison, an average American volunteer (excluding non-volunteers) provides about four hours of volunteering per month. We assessed that an active Latter-day Saint provides through volunteering a social contribution valuing $9,140 annually.
“Overall,” concluded the report, “we found that members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are the most prosocial members of American society. Regardless of where they live, they are very generous with their time and money. Through a theology of obedience and sacrifice and a strong commitment to tithing and service, Latter-day Saints are model citizens.”
A Google search for the study title came up with 106,000 results, while “Mormons are homophobic” resulted in 1,160,000 results. If one does the math, attack wins, negative triumphs, good works are ignored. This isn’t just the case for religious groups, of course, but just look at the preponderance of media coverage.
The Salvation Army, with their cheerful bell-ringers, raised $34 billion since 2000 to help some 370 million people in need. But no good deed goes unpunished, and media attention focused recently on the Chick-fil-A decision – under pressure from LGBTQ activists – to stop donating to the Salvation Army because of its “traditional definition of marriage.”
According to the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, churches also provide social benefits that have economic value. They provide help to poor and vulnerable individuals in the community, improve marriage relationships, decrease violence toward women, increase moral community obligations, and promote charitable contributions and volunteering.
How much does all this add up to, in terms of economic benefits? According to Jeffrey Dorfman, writing in Forbes, studies show that “…religious involvement has been linked to less depression and less alcohol and drug use,” as well as less juvenile delinquency, less smoking, better school attendance and a higher probability of graduating from high school.
Dorfman cites Rodney Stark, a professor of sociology, who says religious attendance benefits the American economy to the tune of $2.6 trillion per year or about one-sixth of our total economic output. So even non-religious people could recognize that they too benefit from religious people. Sure there are problems in churches, as with any organization of human beings. Does religion need more protection than the Bill of Rights and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights? Probably not. Religion is as old as humanity itself and has survived through untold neglect and suppression. China, for example, which is actively suppressing Christianity, is about to become the nation with the largest population of Christians. But a little balance in reporting would be appreciated.
And finally, religion transcends worldly matters and connects humanity to the infinite, to God, to a universe of the spirit. It is a reminder of the eternal and of humanity’s place in it. Moral failings, crimes even murder are not religious stories, but only evidence of the failings of humankind in its present state and the necessity for religion in the individual, the family and the society.