Jewish World Review Dec. 30, 2002 / 25 Teves, 5763
Good for the spirit,
good for the body
The religion grinches have been out and about, doing their best to make sure that the nation's public spaces remain
unsullied by religious displays -- particularly at holiday time.
For example, a Jewish organization had to go to the US Supreme Court before it could put
up a menorah in downtown Cincinnati. The New York City school system issued a memo authorizing displays of
"Christmas trees, menorahs, and the [Muslim] star and crescent" -- which it described as "secular holiday symbol
decorations" -- but forbidding Christian nativity scenes. A creche was permitted in downtown Pittsburgh, but under
pressure from the ACLU, city officials ordered the removal of signs allowing 10-minute parking for those wishing to see it.
By now, countless municipalities have chosen to avoid all these hassles by simply banning religious holiday displays
altogether. Likewise, many schools bar students and staff from wishing each other "Merry Christmas" or singing carols on
The grinches claim to be acting in defense of the First Amendment, which they appear to read as a mandate for militant
state atheism. But the purpose of the amendment's Establishment Clause -- "Congress shall make no law respecting an
establishment of religion" -- was to shield believers from official interference or hostility, not to run the Creator out of the public
square. In the same week in 1789 that Congress adopted the language of the First Amendment, it also hired chaplains for
the House and Senate. That was not the behavior of men who wanted government to be scrupulously religion-free.
Alas, we are a long, long way from first principles on the First Amendment -- witness the recent Ninth Circuit US Court
of Appeals ruling that the words "under G-d" in the Pledge of Allegiance are unconstitutional. Who knows if the Supreme
Court will ever scrape away the separationist zealotry that has come to encrust the Establishment Clause?
So here's a different idea.
Rather than trying to defend City Hall nativity scenes or menorahs -- or school prayer, for that matter -- on the grounds
that the Constitution doesn't forbid them, supporters should defend them by appealing to an even higher value: health.
After all, in 21st-century America, we justify all kinds of things in the name of good health -- from multibillion-dollar
antismoking lawsuits to sex education in elementary schools. Why shouldn't public displays of a religious nature be
embraced in the same way?
We may not ordinarily think of religion as a key to a healthy lifestyle, but there is no question that it is. Hundreds of
scientific studies have found that religious commitment and practice are connected to longer life, lower rates of illness,
greater stamina, and faster healing from injury. Numerous medical schools offer courses in spirituality and health;
Harvard's annual conferences on "Spirituality and Healing in Medicine" draw huge audiences from across North America.
Abstracts posted on the internet by Duke University's Center for Religion/Spirituality and Health suggest the range of
health benefits religion can provide. In one study, researchers studied the effects of private religious activities like prayer
and Bible study on the survival rates of 3,851 seniors. "Even after controlling for social support and health behaviors," the
abstract summarizes, "investigators found that lack of private religious activity continued to predict a 47 percent greater
risk of dying."
Another study focused on the prevalence of religious beliefs and practice among cardiac and pulmonary hospital
patients. Among its findings: "Religious activities and attitudes were inversely related to measures of physical illness
severity and functional disability" -- i.e., more religious patients tended to be less sick or dysfunctional. Other researchers
found that religious practice correlates with lower blood pressure, lower rates of smoking and alcoholism, more stable
immune systems, fewer and shorter hospital stays, and stronger feelings of well-being and morale.
A study published recently in the International Journal of Psychiatry in Medicine analyzed the health records of 6,525
Californians over a 31-year period. The data showed that non-churchgoers were 21 percent more likely to have died than
those who regularly attended religious services -- even after adjusting for factors like smoking and pre-existing medical
problems. They were twice as likely to die of digestive diseases, 66 percent more likely to die of respiratory disease, and
21 percent more likely to die of cardiovascular disease.
None of this has to be explained in terms of divine intervention. People who take religion seriously and who consistently
attend church or synagogue tend to benefit from larger social support networks, to have a hopeful outlook on life, and to
feel more relaxed and accepted. For religious reasons, many believers are careful about diet, sexual behavior, and drug or
alcohol use. They are also more likely to have stable family relationships. All of these are associated with healthier
lifestyles; it stands to reason that those who faithfully practice religion enjoy, on the whole, healthier lives.
So let's stop thinking of nativity scenes or giant menorahs as displays of religion, and view them instead as calls to better
health. Religion is good not only for the soul, but for the mind and body as well. Surely that's a message that even the
ACLU would welcome.
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Jeff Jacoby is a Boston Globe columnist. Comment by clicking here.
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