Why are people so happy in secular Europe and what can the United States do to raise its levels of subjective well-being?
This article has several objectives. The first objective is to examine the impact of secularization on Europe and the United States given changing religious climates and the acceptance of once taboo social issues. To that end, I begin with a brief survey of secularization in Europe and its impact on subjective well-being, followed by a survey of changing demographics in the United States. The next objective is to explore the political divide between secular, liberal Christians in the United States and their conservative, traditional counterparts. I ask “What would Jesus do” in the face of such a divide? He gave us rules by which we should live in two commandments and His Sermon on the Mount. Accordingly, I will examine several important social issues that have divided Christians in the United States through the directives of our Servant Leader, Jesus Christ. By understanding and adhering to His directives, Christians in the United States can better align themselves socially and religiously to achieve a unified front and ultimately, greater levels of subjective well-being.
Eurosecularization and its impact on subjective well-being
Based on results from a series of World Values Surveys collected over the past two decades, Inglehart (2010) determined that developed societies are trending towards post-materialism, which relates to greater secularism and rationalism, a shift towards a better work-life balance, and less religiosity and tradition. Post-materialism is particularly pronounced in Western and Northern European countries, which are often ranked highly in subjective well-being. Subjective well-being as defined by Inglehart (2010) is a composite of happiness and overall life satisfaction.
The term “Eurosecularization” has been used to describe how quickly secular values have spread across the Eurozone (Berger, Davie, & Fokas, 2008; Li & Bond, 2010). According to Pew Research, Europe’s Christian population is expected to decline by over 100 million, from 553 million in 2010 to 454 million in 2050 (McGarry, 2017).
Li and Bond (2010) found that in countries with high levels of development, consistency with societal values (whether traditional/religious or secular/rational) corresponds to subjective well-being. In other words, people who endorse secularism who live in secular societies are likely to be happy and to have high levels of overall life satisfaction. Their beliefs are consistent with the beliefs prevalent in their societies. Conversely, people who endorse religiosity and tradition who live in secular societies are less likely to have high levels of subjective well-being. They would be happier in religious societies with high levels of development (such as the United States).
In recent polls, secular countries have topped the list in happiness. As an example, the World Happiness Report by Gallup’s World Surveys (2015 – 2017) indicated that Nordic countries top the list of the happiest countries. Finland topped the list, followed by Norway, Denmark, Iceland, Switzerland, Netherlands, Canada, New Zealand, Sweden, and Australia (Helliwell, Layard & Sachs, 2018). The United States ranked 18th, which the authors attributed to relatively high levels of depression and addiction. The United States is further stunted by income disparities and significant partisanship between more liberal (and secular) Democrats and more conservative (and traditional/religious) Republicans.
Partisanship in the United States
One could assert the divide between the secular and traditional/religious in the United States has negatively contributed to perceptions of subjective well-being. The secular are more likely than conservatives to endorse pro-choice in abortion, the legalization of marijuana, the legalization of prostitution, gay marriage, more open-door immigration laws, universal healthcare, stricter gun control, and other “social justice warrior” sorts of causes.
Such issues are what divide people not only politically, but across religious lines. Since the “religious right” in the United States are now enjoying support from Republican President Donald Trump, the “religious left” have struggled to adopt a coherent message. Perhaps this issue has contributed to a decline in religiosity in the U.S. According to one study, the share of people who reject a religious affiliation in the United States has gone from six percent in 1992 to 22 percent in 2014 – and among Millennials, that figure is a whopping 35% (Beinart, 2017).
“After Barack Obama took office, a Center for American Progress report declared that ‘demographic change,’ led by secular, tolerant young people, was ‘undermining the culture wars.’ In 2015, the conservative writer David Brooks, noting Americans’ growing detachment from religious institutions, urged social conservatives to ‘put aside a culture war that has alienated large parts of three generations.’” (Beinart, 2007)
“That was naive. Secularism is indeed correlated with greater tolerance of gay marriage and pot legalization. But it’s also making America’s partisan clashes more brutal. And it has contributed to the rise of both Donald Trump and the so-called alt-right movement, whose members see themselves as proponents of white nationalism. As Americans have left organized religion, they haven’t stopped viewing politics as a struggle between “us” and “them.” Many have come to define us and them in even more primal and irreconcilable ways.” (Beinart, 2017)
What Would Jesus Do?
Jesus commanded us to love God above all and to love our neighbors as ourselves. These two commandments succinctly summarized God’s Ten Commandments in the Old Testament into two easily memorized directives.
Based on these directives, how should Christians respond to the following social issues of the day? I will examine these issues specifically: (1) pro-choice in abortion; (2) the legalization of marijuana; (3) the legalization of prostitution; (4) gay marriage; (5) more open-door immigration laws; (6) universal healthcare; and (7) stricter gun control.
(1) Pro-choice in abortion
Abortion is a very complex issue. In the United States, about 1 million abortions occur annually and around 1.5% are due to rape or incest (Earll, 2018). Below I have pasted some statistics on abortion from a group called “Focus on the Family.”
“According to the 2014 CDC report:
- More than 22 percent of abortions are chemical – up 10 percent from 2011
- Nearly 80 percent of abortions are surgical
- 40 percent [of] women who had abortions in the U.S. had no other children
- 44 percent of women who had abortions in the U.S. had at least one previous abortion
- 85 percent of women who had abortions in the U.S. were unmarried
- Almost half of abortions are among women and teens 24-years old and younger.”
According to “Guttmacher Institute, the research arm of the nation’s leading abortion seller, Planned Parenthood:
- At current rates, an estimated ¼ of American women will have an abortion by the age of 45.
- About 15,000 abortions are attributed to rape and incest – representing 1.5% of all abortions.”
The Bible distinguishes human life from other forms of life, as humans are made in the very image of God who directs our purposes and sets our paths in advance of our earthly debuts. God said, “Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you, before you were born, I set you apart” (Jeremiah 1:5). Paul said, “But when God who set me apart from my mother’s womb and called me by His grace, was pleased” (Galatians 1:15).
Children are very special to the Lord. “Children are a heritage of the Lord, offspring a reward from Him.” (Psalm 127:3; c.f., 1 Kings 17:17-24). Plus, Jesus’ ministry focused on helping the weak. One day when children seemed to be bothering His disciples, Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these” (Matthew 19:14).
God also condemned murder and infant sacrifice (Exodus 20:13; Matthew 19:18; Psalm 106:35-38).
Given these Bible passages, one should draw the conclusion that abortion is not condoned or supported by the Lord, who has made His pro-life position clear. At the very least, abortion should be a rarity and a last resort.
(2) The legalization of marijuana
Most Christians support the use of marijuana for doctor-prescribed illnesses, which is consistent with Biblical passages (c.f., 1 Timothy 5:23). At issue is the use of marijuana for recreational purposes. In Paul’s letter to the Corinthians (1 Corinthians 3:16-17; c.f., 1 Corinthians 6:19-20) he says, “Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in your midst? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy that person; for God’s temple is sacred, and you together are that temple.”
Given these passages, one should draw the conclusion that the recreational use of marijuana is not supported by the Lord, particularly if it leads to the defilement of the body and altering of the mind, yet the medical use of marijuana is acceptable.
(3) The legalization of prostitution
Prostitution is the oldest profession, and while a prostitute (Rahab) was in Jesus’ lineage and He forgave and took mercy on prostitutes, prostitution is not condoned by the Bible. Prostitution destroys marriages, lives, and families and the practice can lead to spiritual and physical death. God desires purity and that we use our bodies to glorify Him. In his letter to the Corinthians (1 Corinthians 6:13), Paul wrote, “The body, however, is not meant for sexual immorality but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body.”
Legalizing any practice leads to cultural acceptance and greater usage, so legalizing prostitution will only harm society, leading to the potential for greater spiritual and physical deaths. For these reasons, supporting the legalization of prostitution stands in stark contrast to the way God desires that we live.
(4) Gay marriage
Jesus taught that marriage in the eyes of God is between one man and one woman (Matthew 19:1-12). Yet marriage in the eyes of the U.S. government (depending on the state) may be between one man and one woman, one man and more than one woman (Utah’s “sister wives”), one man and another man, or one woman and another woman. Married couples reap tax benefits, health insurance benefits, and other financial partner benefits, so some Christians have accepted gay marriage based on equal rights and the U.S. axiom that “all men are created equal.” If marriage is considered a governmental right, one might draw from Jesus’ famous directive that divided church and state. He said, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.” The government may sanction gay marriage, but this form of marriage is not sanctioned in the Bible.
(5) More open-door immigration laws
According to the Pew Research Center, 76 percent of immigrants are living in the United States legally and support for legal immigration has risen from ten percent in 2001 to 32 percent today. One reason for support may be that 71% of Americans believe that immigrants fill jobs that most U.S. citizens do not want (Lardieri, 2018). Furthermore, 69 percent of Americans feel somewhat or very sympathetic towards immigrants without legal status and Democrats are more likely to feel sympathy than Republicans (86% vs. 48%) (Lardieri, 2018). Sympathy may have arisen from a number of factors, including the dangers from which some immigrants have escaped in their home countries.
Where would Jesus stand on such issues?
In Matthew 25: 35-40, Jesus said: “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’
“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’
“The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’”
Based on this passage and Jesus’ ministry to the poor, downtrodden, and disadvantaged, Christians are called upon to offer lifelines to those in need. This calling further applies to (6) making sacrifices for the provision of universal healthcare.
(7) Stricter gun control
When Jesus was arrested by soldiers just prior to His conviction and crucifixion, one of His companions reached for his sword, drew it out and struck the servant of the high priest, cutting his ear. Jesus said, “Put your sword back in its place, for all who draw the sword will die by the sword.”
In the first few hundred years following Jesus’ resurrection, Christians were a peace-loving and often persecuted folk. Many took to heart Jesus’ words about weapons. We might consider His words more thoughtfully today.
In conclusion, we have the potential to bridge the gap between the desires of both liberal and conservative Christians by looking to the directives from the Savior whom we all revere. United we stand. Divided we fall. While some of these directives mirror practices considered acceptable in secular societies, the practices in and of themselves will not lead to happiness and overall life satisfaction. They need to be considered in alignment with God’s will and humanity’s meaning and purpose.
Therefore, I now turn your attention to Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:1-10), which nicely sums up and unifies many of the passages I have quoted above.
“Now when Jesus saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, and he began to teach them. He said: ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.’”
When we follow Jesus’ directives, we are blessed, so we should rejoice and be glad. We have nourished our hearts and souls with the only nourishment that leads to long-term unshakeable true joy, which is that from the source of all joy: Jesus.
Thank you for your time.
Berger, P., Davie, G., & Fokas, E. (2008). Religious America, secular Europe? A theme and variations. Burlington, VT: Ashgate.
Earll, C.G. (2018). By the numbers: U.S. abortion statistics. Focus on the Family. Accessed July 18, 2018 at: https://www.focusonthefamily.com/socialissues/life-issues/dignity-of-human-life/abortion-statistics
Helliwell, J.F., Layard, R. & Sachs, J.D. (2018). World Happiness Report. Accessed at https://s3.amazonaws.com/happiness-report/2018/WHR_web.pdf
Inglehart, R. (2010). Culture and Democracy. In L.E. Harrison and S.P. Huntington (eds.) Culture Matters, (pp. 81-97), New York: Basic Books.
Lardieri, A. (2018). Support for legal immigration on the rise: A new survey found most people support legal immigration and less people want to cut back on it. U.S. Today. June 28. Accessed 8/26/18 at https://www.usnews.com/news/politics/articles/2018-06-28/study-support-for-legal-immigration-on-the-rise-among-both-parties
Li, L.M.W. & Bond, M.H. (2010). Does individual secularism promote life satisfaction? The moderating role of societal development. Springer Science & Business Media, B.V., 99(3), 443-453.
McGarry, P. (2017). Europe’s Christian population falls amid atheists and Muslims. Irish Times. April 6. Accessed 8/26/18 at https://www.irishtimes.com/news/social-affairs/religion-and-beliefs/europe-s-christian-population-falls-amid-rise-of-atheists-and-muslims-1.3039114