COLLEGE PARK – Jessica Newman, 21, never misses a day of daily Mass, nor voting in an election, and she writes to her representatives regularly about issues she supports.
The junior philosophy major at the University of Maryland, College Park, typifies what a new study from the university’s Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement has found: Young people who attend religious services regularly are more likely to politically active.
“Religious places become centers of civic activity, providing a vehicle in which to get involved,” said Mark Lopez, senior researcher for the project and director of the center, who also cautioned against assuming a causal relationship between the two.
“The data can’t explain the correlation . . . it could just be that people who are higher achievers generally in life are the ones that are more likely to go to church, and more likely to be involved,” Lopez said. “We can’t tease out those answers.”
Of young people between ages 20 and 25 who attend religious services at least once a week, 36 percent reported that they voted regularly, while only 21 percent who attend services several times a year and 20 percent who never attend services voted regularly.
“I just got the right to vote at 18, but I pay attention regularly to politics, and have been active since I was able to,” said freshman Haval Salih, 19, who is Muslim and goes to the mosque about twice a month. “If I knew about rallies, or activities in the city, I would go.”
Many religious leaders find that basic values of their faiths lead many youth to become active politically, because it is the most accessible way to channel their beliefs into public service.
“If we don’t go make our voices heard, we’ll lose our liberties,” said Dennis Monson, director of the Institute of Religion of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints at the University of Maryland, College Park. The tenets of the religion, also known as the Mormon Church, are based on a strong belief in civic duty and community affairs, said Monson.
Nearly universal among religions is the belief that members should work toward the public good, a tenet that may explain the link between religious and civic activism.
“It’s not just about me, but about us,” said Rabbi Eli Backman of the Chabad Jewish Center at the university, explaining the public good concept.
“The kid that is going to church every single week — even if it’s inconvenient or (they) don’t feel like it — they have a sense of non-negotiable, a sense of broader values outside of themselves,” said the Rev. Bill Byrne of the Catholic Student Center at the University of Maryland, College Park. Students who don’t make the effort to attend services regularly, he said, don’t have that commitment: “It’s a matter of convenience rather than die-hard principles.”
However, senior philosophy student Jamie Harrell, 25, doesn’t fit the mold.
“It doesn’t surprise me . . . but people in positions of religious leadership tend to show religious views to their congregations and express them as moral views,” said Harrell, a self-proclaimed athiest who votes regularly in elections.
Older people are more likely to vote than younger people, Harrell said, and voting allows religious perspectives to be presented in a legal framework, such as gay marriage and stem cell research.
“Our policies on these things come from religious perspectives, not non-religious, and they’re flawed policies,” said Harrell. “I hope one day young people will be able to think more rationally . . . and we can create policy based on reason and not religion.”
Harrell said the separation of church and state are important progress in public policy, but Backman argues that such a separation is impossible, and cites scripture to back up that view.
“A person should pray on behalf of the government,” he quotes from Chapter Three of “Ethics of the Father,” a part of a writing of Jewish oral faith called the Mishnah. Translated from the Hebrew, it reads, “If not for the government, than each one person would swallow each other alive.”