Religion & Public Life: Moving Private Funds to Faith-Based Social Service Providers

James Q. Wilson
James Q. Wilson Professor of Public Policy, Pepperdine University

March 1, 1999

Religion makes a large difference in the lives of millions of Americans despite the fact that American government is indifferent to it and hostile to its support. This may only appear to be a paradox. In fact, religion may be important in the United States in part because governmental indifference allows so many religions to prosper. Voltaire foresaw as much when he observed that a nation with one religion has oppression, a nation with two has civil war, and a nation with a hundred has peace. Much the same argument was made by Adam Smith.

Though the United States is a nation inhabited by people from other countries where religious observance is less important than it is here, the law and culture that sustain multiple sects have worked their effect on many who have arrived here, giving them a chance to form and organize around their own beliefs, to create and sustain their own churches, and to proclaim and defend their own visions. America enjoys religious freedom, and accordingly many religions have prospered. Freedom of religious expression has not stunted religion, it has encouraged it.