One of the things I’ve tried to do in this newsletter is take a pause from the news cycle and write about bigger, deeper trends that shape American life, including our marriage divides, the masculinity crisis, evolving sexual norms, the ways we argue, and how we forgive. For my last Third Rail newsletter, I also want to talk about something bigger and deeper: the decline in church attendance, deaths of despair, and the necessity of community for hope and purpose.
I know that’s material better suited for a book than a short newsletter, but I want to introduce a few thoughts. Last week, my little corner of the online world lit up with people sharing a National Bureau of Economic Research working paper tying America’s ongoing decline in religious practice to the increase in “deaths of despair”—ones involving suicide, alcohol abuse, and drug overdose.
The study, by Tyler Giles, Daniel M. Hungerman, and Tamar Oostrom, found that a “large decline in religious practice was driven by the group experiencing subsequent increases in mortality: white middle-aged Americans without a college degree.” And that’s not all:
We also show that there is a strong negative relationship across states between religiosity and mortality due to deaths of despair. We further find that states that experienced larger declines in religious participation in the last 15 years of the century saw larger increases in deaths of despair. Both the decline in religiosity and the rise in deaths of despair were driven by the same group of individuals in the same places.
To demonstrate the connection between declining religiosity and rising deaths, the authors examined the link between the repeal of blue laws (laws which regulate commerce on Sabbath days, traditionally Sunday), subsequent decreases in church attendance, and the rise in suicides, overdoses, and alcohol deaths.
The authors reject monocausal explanations for deaths of despair. Of course, there are many reasons people take their own life or slide into drug addiction or alcohol abuse. But it’s not remotely surprising to me that despair can be tied to declining church attendance.
It’s not surprising for the same reason that it’s not surprising that deaths of despair are disproportionately concentrated in single men and single women: Loneliness deprives a person of hope and purpose. Isolation doesn’t negatively affect everyone. Some folks thrive alone (or nearly alone). But most of us need companionship and community like we need air and water.
It’s hard to think of an institution that can better provide hope and purpose than a well-functioning church. There is a reason John 3:16 is one of the most remembered verses in scripture: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”
There is a reason Jeremiah 29:11 is framed in countless American homes: “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”
These verses provide a combination of eternal and temporal assurance of God’s loving nature. That doesn’t mean Christianity can’t be incredibly demanding (Jesus urged his disciples to take up their cross to follow him), but a demanding life is a purposeful life.
That brings me to the daily rhythms of church life. In a good church, there is a place for every kind of person, a role for each member of the community. It’s actually extraordinary and inspiring to watch everyone from white-collar lawyers to blue-collar landscapers work together in a symphony of service.
A sense of community isn’t unique to a church, synagogue, or mosque, but it is inherent in each of those institutions. And thus, it makes all the sense in the world that dwindling attendance at religious services—combined with declining marriage rates and and number of friendships—mean that more Americans are isolated and alone.
Loneliness destroys lives, and it can damage nations. Writing in The Week, my friend Damon Linker astutely noted that “the politics of loneliness is totalitarian.” In the absence of genuine friendships, Linker argues, we form factions or movements that provide a facsimile of hope, purpose, and relationship. These relationships can seem fulfilling and even intoxicating if you plug into a true mass movement, but they’re frequently conditional on conformity.
If you meet a new friend who’s also a “Front Row Joe” at a Trump rally, can your relationship survive a political change of heart? And although you might argue that religious disagreements can fracture relationships as thoroughly as political disagreements, the fundamental underlying religious ethos of love for your neighbor is supposed to preserve bonds of fellowship even across profound differences.
We know that’s often not the case. We know that religious communities can be even less tolerant of difference than political parties are. Fundamentalism is a poisonous force. In fact, dysfunction is a prime reason for church decline. It’s one thing to yell at the culture, “Get back to church!” It’s another thing entirely to make sure your religious community is worth coming back to.
Politics does not provide the ultimate answer to our civic and cultural ailment. It is very difficult to imagine a series of government policies that can repair marriage, rebuild friendships, and reestablish the civic associations (including religious institutions) that are the lifeblood of our national community. Policy can help or hurt, of course, but it cannot cure what ails American culture.
Moreover, redirecting civic energy into partisan politics is part of our American problem. Our factional friendships are unstable and often inherently divisive. If we’re friends because we have shared enemies, then we’re ultimately hurting the cause of community more than we’re helping it.
At the same time, it can be encouraging to know that our ability to influence our families and our communities isn’t contingent upon our political triumphs. You can be a member of the smallest faction of the weakest political party in America and still mentor a fatherless child, or serve side by side with new friends in the countless invaluable but thankless tasks performed by a good local church: stocking food pantries, setting up religious services, staying with homeless men or women to give them a warm bed and a warm meal on a cold winter’s night.
This is a call not for political disengagement but for placing politics in its proper place. If we love and serve our neighbors, we can do something tangible to repair our national fabric—and perhaps even help save the lives of the lonely people all around us.
Thank you for reading this newsletter. As I said last week, I’ve truly valued your thoughts and ideas. I’ve appreciated your good-faith disagreements. It’s been a true honor to write for The Atlantic. Farewell.