Sen. Sylvia Allen: Would 'mandatory church' lead to 'moral rebirth'?

Sylvia Allen, an Arizona state senator, opined that church attendance should be mandatory. Constitutional questions aside, there is a centuries-long debate that goes back to the European Enlightenment: Can you be moral if you’re not religious?

Nicki Kohl/Telegraph Herald/AP
St. Columbkille Elementary School kindergarten student Dan Lundstrom, 5, prays during Mass at St. Columbkille Catholic Church, in Dubuque, Iowa, on March 25, 2015. The St. Columbkille Elementary School kindergarten classes planned the all school liturgy.

In a “flippant” remark during a concealed-carry gun bill debated in the Arizona legislature this week, a tea party Republican senator, bewildered by opposition to the bill, opined that the state should require mandatory church attendance to battle the country’s moral decay.

People should be allowed to carry concealed weapons into public buildings because “there’s a moral erosion of the soul of America,” argued Sen. Sylvia Allen of Snowflake, and people now feel the need to arm themselves, even in public spaces.

“It's the soul that is corrupt – how we get back to a moral rebirth I don't know, since we are slowly eroding religion at every opportunity that we have,” she said during a committee meeting debating the proposal. “Probably we should be debating a bill requiring every American to attend a church of their choice on Sunday to see if we can get back to having a moral rebirth.”

A Democratic colleague posted her remarks online, and it’s caused a bit of stir. Setting aside issues of the Constitution, just for a moment, there is a centuries-long debate that goes back to the European Enlightenment and the dawn of liberal democracy: Can you be moral if you’re not religious?

"For many people, religion is a source of great comfort that provides clear moral orientation and a supportive community to encourage moral practice,” says Evan Selinger, an ethics philosopher at Rochester Institute of Technology in New York. “But one doesn't have to be religious to be moral. Not only has history has shown that there are many secular ways to develop a rich sense of conscientiousness, but many compelling moral theories don't justify exacting standards of rightness and wrongness by the demands of divine expectations.”

For Senator Allen and many like-minded religious conservatives, the country’s morals have been in a shambles since the 1960s, with the rise of a more permissive sexual ethos, the legalization of abortion, and the current widespread acceptance of homosexuality across the country.

At the same time, there’s been what some scholars call “the great decline” in church attendance and membership since the 1950s, including a sharp decline in the past decade, numerous surveys show. 

But after her quip about debating mandatory church attendance, Allen explained the growing controversy about her comments by doubling down and invoking the simpler, and what she considers more moral and religious era of her youth in the 1950s. 

"It was a different time. People prayed. People went to church. I remember on Sunday the stores were closed. You didn't go to stores because they weren't open," she said on the Senate floor.

"But the biggest thing is, religion was kicked out of our public places, out of our schools, Ten Commandments were no longer allowed in public, monuments of Ten Commandments. Things have changed," she explained. 

For many Americans, especially Millennials, the sexism, homophobia, and religious justifications for racism in the 1950s appear more immoral today than an individual’s consensual sexual conduct.  

“It's overly-simplistic to believe that genuine moral sensitivity can be engineered,” Professor Selinger says. “People can regularly participate in religious rituals ... and still turn out to be insensitive, selfish, apathetic, and even cruel.”

Even so, despite the general decline, the United States remains an outlier among wealthy nations, maintaining a robust religious citizenry compared with other industrialized states.

And as one Arizona commentator quipped back about the “halcyon” 1950s era: “I know what you're thinking: Civil rights problems. Women's rights problems. Voting rights problems. Segregated schools,” wrote EJ Montini, a columnist with The Arizona Republic, in an imagined prayer.

By contrast, many point out, crime rates in the US today have now reached historic lows, and are continuing to fall.

And like many since the Enlightenment, many social thinkers today base morality on universally-applied rational rules or deep-seated human sentiments rooted in the empathy of the “golden rule.” That maxim of reciprocity is common to many religions, including Confucianism and Buddhism, and is found in Christ Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. During the Enlightenment, the philosopher Immanuel Kant placed the golden rule into a rational, secular perspective. Today’s social thinkers say just being religious is neither a prerequisite to being moral, nor an assurance that a person will be moral.

“Even militant atheists like the French existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre claimed that no one can accept responsibility for free will without fundamentally being concerned about all of humanity and continually striving to avoid hypocrisy,” Selinger says.

Now, back to that Constitution.

"Even if you believe that would stem the moral decay, I think the Constitution makes it very clear that our country is founded on the pillar of separation of church and state,” said Sen. Steve Farley, the Tucson Democrat that posted Allen’s remarks.

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