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George Washington Was Wrong (Religiosity, Felicity and Prosperity)

The following declaration issues forth from the Baptist church in South Somerville, Maine:

South Somerville Baptist Church: An Immoral Nation Can't Expect God's Blessings -- George Washington, 1789

George Washington never actually said these exact words in 1789 or at any other time. What Washington actually said, in his 1789 Inaugural Address, was this:

“I dwell on this prospect with every satisfaction which an ardent love for my Country can inspire: since there is no truth more thoroughly established, than that there exists in the economy and course of nature, an indissoluble union between virtue and happiness, between duty and advantage, between the genuine maxims of an honest and magnanimous policy, and the solid rewards of public prosperity and felicity: Since we ought to be no less persuaded that the propitious smiles of Heaven, can never be expected on a nation that disregards the eternal rules of order and right, which Heaven itself has ordained.”

The South Somerville Baptist Church would like us to accept these words as true because George Washington said them. But are those words true? Do the “propitious smiles of Heaven” shine down in the form of “public prosperity and felicity” where “the eternal rules of order and right, which Heaven itself has ordained,” are not disregarded?

Let’s look at the fifty states of the United States. Let’s look at religiosity, measured by the Gallup Poll as the % of residents who report “religion is important in their lives and say they attend church weekly or nearly weekly.” For felicity, let’s look at the violent crime rate of a state as measured by Uniform Crime Reports. For public prosperity, let’s look at GDP per capita in a state as reported by the Bureau of Economic Analysis. To judge the relationship between religious righteousness, felicity and prosperity, let’s create scatterplots for the 50 states and look for the relationship that results:

Religiosity and Felicity

The more religious states are not more felicitous. The more religious states have higher rates of violent crime.

state felicity

The more religious states are not more prosperous. The more religious states have lower gross domestic product per capita.

George Washington may have said something like what the Somerville Baptist Church claims he said, but when he said it George Washington was wrong.

3 comments to George Washington Was Wrong (Religiosity, Felicity and Prosperity)

  • Dave

    Indeed, Washington may have been wrong in that, rather than God blessing a nation for its regard for order and right, perhaps a nation cannot present a regard for order and right unless first blessed by God. The Blessing comes first, in my book.

    Your graphs are interesting but of course they don’t in any way prove that higher rates of religion will mean higher violent crime rates. I looked for some causation not included in the graphs and found several possibles, one being higher violent crime rates among African-Americans than among whites. Janet Reno I think came up with the “8 times more likely” to commit violent crime, but reliable statistics are kept a secret by most government agencies now. The ten states that are most religious are, on average, about 31% black, the ten states that are least religious are 7% black. (In the large Southern city near my home, one will meet one black person for every two whites, whereas in the state of Maine, for example, it will be one black for every 100 or so whites).

    Pls check my math, but subtracting the black folks from the population of each category of ten states, even if rates of violent crime are constant among the remaining whites, I am getting a slightly higher rate of violent crime among whites in the least religious states than in the most religious.

    I dwell here on racial factors because of a small irritant. Seems that folks from around the U.S. love mocking us honey boo boo Southern people because we are so backward, not understanding that the population of the South is hugely African-American, and when using statistics to prove how laughable we all are, the statistician often unwittingly is simply pointing out disparities that are racial in nature. (Mocking Mississippi for being behind in almost every social indicator for example is mocking one of the most black states in the U.S.)

  • I have lived a number of years in each region of the country, including the South.

    One of the cultural features the South is mocked for as a region is racism, an odd fascination in the South with discriminating against people on the basis of their skin color. There are many people who in the South who aren’t racist, but according to longitudinal study by the General Social Survey the South contains a disproportionate number of people who report racist attitudes.

    I think if you’re abandoning religion as a source of moral behavior and looking for something else, you might try thinking about poverty instead of focusing on skin color. In the South many people choose to spout pieties (higher religiosity) while discriminating on the basis of race (racism) and not bothering with the social spending that is associated with better life outcomes (“Socialism” is evil). Is it any wonder that poverty and therefore crime is higher in such places?

    Sources for empirical claims: General Social Survey at http://sda.berkeley.edu/archive.htm and Kaiser Family Foundation analysis of state government data at http://kff.org/other/state-indicator/per-capita-state-spending/#map

    • Dave

      Thirty four percent of America’s welfare recipients live in California, a not particulary religious state. They are 14th from the top in violent crime. Mississippi is the most religious state and also dead last in social spending, however they are quite far behind California in violent crime at number 31. These stats don’t point to social spending as a major factor in this instance. It’s going to be something else.

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