Neal Milner: Our Moral Compass Is Lost In The Political Wilderness - Honolulu Civil Beat


About the Author

Neal Milner

Neal Milner is a former political science professor at the University of Hawaii where he taught for 40 years. He is a political analyst for KITV and is a regular contributor to Hawaii Public Radio's "The Conversation." His most recent book is The Gift of Underpants. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.


Recently Civil Beat published a wonderfully aspirational article about religion and public life written by my friend Dawn Morais.

“Faith should not be a prop,” she writes. “It should offer moral clarity publicly. Faith without engagement in our political life is a poverty we can no longer afford.”

This reflects a passionate, active commitment to helping the poor and downtrodden, firmly based in Christian social action and at the heart of St. Elizabeth’s Episcopal church in Kalihi where she worships.

It’s a Martin Luther King, Catholic Worker Movement, speaking-Christ-to-power kind of Christianity that inspired so many of us in the 1960s and ’70s even if, like me, we weren’t Christian.

This form of Christianity was a powerful moral compass. It still is, but now more as a reminder of what we have lost.

Because religion and politics have changed so much in the U.S., this moral compass has lost its general appeal, and we can’t get it back no matter how just and valid that message is.

To do what Morais wants us to do, and what we did in the past, churches have to be able to both mobilize and mediate. They have lost much of this power.

Although a very high percentage of Americans continue to believe in God, there has been a huge decline in religious affiliation. The number of people who do not identify with any religion — in his recent book Ryan Burge calls them “nones” — is now about the same size as Catholics and conservative Christians, which are the two largest Christian denominations.

In 10 years, there will be more nones than any other group. As Burge, who is both a social scientist and a pastor of a small-town Illinois church says, this is an unstoppable trend 

So, church attendance is way down, especially in mainline Protestant churches (Lutheran, Episcopalian, and Methodists, for instance). But even the Evangelical numbers have not increased.

It’s true among every age group. It’s even true among Black Protestant churches, which have been the lifeblood of Black political life. As Burge puts it, “There is no segment of American society that has been immune to the rise of religious disaffiliation.”

Religious affiliation used to work in a life cycle. Typically, a person was active as a child, then left church activities as a young adult but came back when she had children.

This life cycle is no more. People stay gone, leaving a lot of churches with a smaller and smaller group of elderly worshipers with no one to replace them.

And all this makes it terribly hard for churches to mobilize and consequently hard to engage.

St. Elizabeth’s Church still has parishioners who are committed to helping the poor and downtrodden in the community. Courtesy: Hawaii Modernism Library

Social media or not, mobilization depends on having bodies in the seats — parishioners interacting with one another face to face.

What’s more, the kind of people that nones are adds to the mobilization problem.

Nones are not like atheists who actively do not believe in the existence of God. Nones are simply disaffiliated and disengaged from religion. People hate atheists. In surveys atheists rank at the bottom, even lower than Congress.

In contrast, the public has very little sense of who nones are, partly because nones are not very engaged with social life.

People who identify as atheists have a high rate of participation in political and civic life. Nones are quite the opposite.

They are not just disengaged from religion. They are also disengaged from political and social life more generally.

The nones are another example of the general decline in communal social activity from voter registration, to food banks, to refugee assistance.

To sum up, a significant and growing number of Americans lie beyond the reach of committed religiously-based social action.

Common Ground Is Disappearing

It’s now also much harder for churches to help people find common ground. Religion has become as polarized as everything else. People who attend church and claim a religious affiliation are far more likely to be Republicans.

Democrats, surveys have shown, are more likely than Republicans to prioritize walkable neighborhoods with good public transit. Republicans, on the other hand, prize neighborhoods with more Christians and larger houses.

It is much more common now for people to choose a church on the basis of their political beliefs — politics first, church follows. It’s also fair to say that more and more people choose to disaffiliate because of their political beliefs.

Not that long ago, half of Democrats were churchgoers. Today, Republicans have sorted themselves in while Democrats have sorted themselves out, creating a chasm in religious affiliation.

This sorting makes it more likely that people know only folks who agree with them and reinforce their beliefs. Result: more demonizing, more stereotyping.

For the sake of argument, say you don’t care whether churches survive or not because you think their beliefs are silly, hypocritical, dangerous, or whatever.

Even so, there is much to be lost by this decline in religious institutions. Three things, to be exact.

As churches become weaker, who will take this over?  The easy answer of course is the government, but the hard truth is: the government? Really?

First, churches of all denominations offer important social services like the ones I mentioned earlier. You libs may fear and loathe Evangelicals, but those groups are out there doing good works that need to get done. In Hawaii, mainline churches play a big role in distributing food.

As churches become weaker, who will take this over? The easy answer of course is the government, but the hard truth is: the government? Really?

Government can do more, but you need to be more of a believer than I am to think it will pick up all the slack.

Second, churches help develop a community’s social capital. They are part of a community or neighborhood infrastructure that helps people keep in touch and look out for one another.

Over the past 40 years or so, there has been a big decline in how often Americans socialize with their neighbors as well as a drop in the time we spend with our friends. Church decline both reflects this same pattern and makes it worse. More bowling alone.

Third, it’s not just about the decline in services or socialization. It also is about a decline in rhetoric. The religious-based language at the heart of the kind of social action Morais advocates was, and for me still is, truly inspirational. It got to my heart and my gut and motivated me to get out there.

I’m a liberal. I support most progressive causes. But the words behind them don’t touch my soul. I base my politics much more on fear and anger. Inspiration? Not really.

Stopping The Decline

The power of the old social action religious discourse may be waning, but there is nothing that has filled the vacuum. What we have today instead is too much political theatre with execrably written scripts.

What can churches contribute to stop the trend? Above my pay grade, so I will turn to others, including Pastor Burge and Dawn Morais herself.

Burge’s small-town Illinois congregation has dropped from about 50 to 20 regular parishioners. His message to his clerical colleagues is basically this: Get real. You cannot reverse the trend, but you can make adjustments, many of which are small charitable things without any proselytizing.

He also says that as hard as it is, churches need to continue to search for common ground particularly through “imago dei,” a belief among Christian and non-Christian religions that we are all created in the image of God.

That’s also Morais’s vision: “A person is a person through another person because we share the breath of life.”

Everything I have said earlier indicates how challenging it is to unite and mobilize people with that message. But that’s what faith is about.

Finally, keep the bright lights burning where they continue to burn. St. Elizabeth’s is truly an exceptional church, sitting in the shadow of Mayor Wright Housing, a short walk but a very long distance from the magisterial St. Andrews Episcopal Cathedral downtown.

Sometimes big aspirations along with small meaningful steps is the best you can hope for.


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About the Author

Neal Milner

Neal Milner is a former political science professor at the University of Hawaii where he taught for 40 years. He is a political analyst for KITV and is a regular contributor to Hawaii Public Radio's "The Conversation." His most recent book is The Gift of Underpants. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.


Latest Comments (0)

Religion taught me, as a child, to grow up and try to make a difference.Regardless of your religion or politics, it just feels good to help your fellow man, not just by paying your taxes so that the government can provide a limited safety net, but by getting out there, joining some sort of organization which isn’t driven solely by the get ahead profit motive; some activity where you can freely give back your effort and skill, and both learn from and teach others.We are a social species, and while achieving success in business, having personal wealth, a happy family, and donating to charity, are all fine goals, increasingly people just don’t, won’t make the time to participate in community oriented causes, of which there are an endless supply; some religious, some political, some both, many neither.Does our "morality" get enhanced by these efforts, or are the efforts enhanced by the expression of our own moral code? It doesn’t really matter; if you do it, you, and society, will be better and happier, for it.

Wylie · 4 months ago

"Thank God." I don’t want any church holding sway over politics and governmental decisions. Churches are not the source of morality. 

BusRider33 · 4 months ago

Here's a plan that might help Milner's despair--it works for me.  1) Stop following politics closely, especially the theatrical stuff that is all the rage nowadays.  2) Appreciate how often people help and empathize with one another by being on the lookout for it and practicing it yourself whenever you can.  Practicing kindness beats the hell out of searching for a moral compass.

td · 4 months ago

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