Going to church is America’s key to long and happy lives

By Timothy P. Carney February 16, 2019

Sioux County in Iowa is the most religious in the state, and suffers less from drug abuse and disability.

Sioux County is probably the most Christian county in all of Iowa.

“In a town of 7,000 people — 19 churches,” Jordan Helming, a local resident, tells me.

The county has the highest portion of evangelicals in the state and an even higher rate of mainline Protestants, according to the Association of Religious Data Archives.

Sioux County also scores high on other important measures: It has the second-lowest portion of residents on disability in Iowa and the lowest drug-overdose rate in the state.

A few counties south, Pottawattamie County — home to Council Bluffs — is Iowa’s least religious large county, according to ARDA’s numbers. Pottawattamie has one religious organization per 1,400 residents, one-third the rate of Sioux County.

Counties at the bottom of ARDA’s religiosity rankings in Iowa — Pottawattamie, Adams, and Appanoose — also have (per capita) the most overdoses, the most violent crimes, and the most disability claims.

As I lay out in my new book, “Alienated America,” in middle-class and working-class America, the more religious counties do better, and the least religious counties do worse. There are piles of data on this.

Men who go to church regularly are, according to various studies, more likely to get married, and less likely to cheat on their wives or girlfriends, to abuse them, or to get divorced. It’s the same for kids. Churchgoing kids abuse drugs less and have better relationships with their parents, according to Robert Putnam, author of “Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community.”

Families that attend church, synagogue or mosque every week are more likely to eat dinner together every day and go on regular family outings, according to the American Family Survey conducted by the Deseret News and BYU. The General Social Survey finds that 50 percent of Americans who go to church more than once a week call themselves “very happy.” That number drops as church attendance drops, down to only 25 percent for those who go once a year or less.

Although Christians, Jews, and Muslims seek their ultimate reward in the afterlife, weekly worship seems to postpone that day: Baby Boomers who attended religious services regularly were 40 percent less likely to die between 2004 and 2014 than were their non-attending peers, a 2017 study by academics at Emory University found.

To be precise, this isn’t about bad outcomes among the irreligious. It’s about bad outcomes among those who don’t attend religious services.

Put another way: Belonging to a church is a crucial element of living a good, happy, healthy life. And this phenomenon ripples out from the individuals into the community. Places like Sioux Center, or like Salt Lake City, with full vibrant churches, are places with more upward mobility, more marriage, and more family formation.

In middle-class and working-class America, the more religious counties do better, and the least religious counties do worse

The Mormons and the Reform churches are definitely doing something right. What is their secret?

I asked the people of Salt Lake and Sioux Center, and they both gave the same answer: The key is churches that deliberately and unceasingly try to build communities and become institutions of civil society, not merely places of worship. These churches teach their followers to live out their faith by serving their neighbors, and they provide the safety net and sense of purpose that only tight-knit communities can provide.

“Hillary Clinton was right,” Boyd Matheson, a conservative Republican Mormon, told me from his office overlooking Temple Square in Salt Lake City. “It does take a village.”

The Mormons’ strong families are made possible by their strong communities, he argued. Matheson pointed out the ubiquity of the beehive in Mormon places, emphasizing a community-mindedness that can sometimes get short shrift in a Middle America high on rugged individualism.

The Mormon church has an extensive but intimate welfare system in which families sacrifice to care for their neighbors in need.

With the Reformed, it’s the same story. “That’s just what you do,” Helming, a transplant to Sioux Center told me. “You care about your neighbors, you care about the environment.” In Oostburg, a heavily Dutch Reformed village in Wisconsin, I found the same thing. The four Reformed churches had built a place where “The community really backs their children,” as Dan, a mechanic, put it.

In most of the rest of the country, church attendance is falling. Just from 2007 to 2014, the portion of people attending every week dropped from 40 percent to 36 percent, according to the Pew Research Center. Going back further, to the mid-1950s, the number of Americans attending a house of worship was as high as 49 percent, Gallup reported.

And where the churches are closing, the outcomes are ugly.

A 2013 study for the book “Lost Classroom, Lost Community” suggests that sudden closures of Catholic schools cause increases in crime and drug use and a declining trust in one’s neighbors.

As politicians and social leaders try to pinpoint the root cause of American woe, they should start by looking at the closing churches — and the ones that are bustling.

Timothy P. Carney is the author of the new book, “Alienated America: Why Some Places Thrive While Others Collapse,” the commentary editor at the Washington Examiner, and a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

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