Dean Hess, Preacher and Fighter Pilot, Dies at 97
By SAM ROBERTS
MARCH 7, 2015
Dean Hess, a flying preacher who unwittingly bombed a German orphanage during World War II and six years later helped rescue hundreds of Korean foundlings endangered by Communist troops converging on Seoul, died on Monday at his home in Huber Heights, Ohio, near Dayton. He was 97.
His death, after a short illness, was confirmed by his son Lawrence.
As a young minister of the Disciples of Christ Church, Mr. Hess preached his first sermon at 16 and flew a Piper Cub as he hopscotched from parish to parish in the Midwest. But after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, he decided to enlist in the Aviation Cadet Program.
The church elders were incredulous. But he recalled telling them: “If we believe our cause is just and necessary, how in all conscience can I ask others to protect it — and me — while I keep clean of the gory mess of war?”
His wartime exploits — he flew more than 300 combat missions over Europe and Korea and retired as a lieutenant colonel — were immortalized in an autobiography, “Battle Hymn,” and a movie of the same name. (“Wing and a Prayer” was taken.) He was played by Rock Hudson.
In World War II, Col. Hess unwittingly bombed an orphanage. CreditU.S. Air ForceHe was also a consultant to the film and, for the airborne scenes, flew the plane at the center of the story: an F-51 bearing the number 18 and, on the engine cowling, Korean characters that translated as “By faith I fly.”
After enlisting, he was sent to France in 1944 and flew 63 combat missions there for the Army Air Forces. On one, he wrote in “Battle Hymn,” he was strafing railroad yards at Kaiserslautern, Germany, when a 1,000-pound bomb he had dropped overshot its target and struck a brick apartment building. Dozens were killed.
“A little hole appeared in the wall from the penetration of the bomb casing, and a moment later the insides of the building spilled out,” he wrote.
Sometime later, driving a jeep through Kaiserslautern, he learned that the blackened shell of the building that his bomb had destroyed had been an orphanage and a school for hundreds of children of local war workers. He tried not to look.
“But it seemed to stare at me like some malevolent eye,” he wrote. “I wondered if beneath the piles of bricks a few small bodies still lay, as yet undiscovered.”
After the war, he earned a master’s degree in European history at Ohio University and was working on his doctorate at Ohio State in 1948 when the military recalled him. (By then the Army Air Forces had become the Air Force, a separate branch.)
He was deployed to Korea, ostensibly to train the fledgling South Korean Air Force, but there was no keeping him out of combat — or from intervening to provide relief for starving and homeless children orphaned by the war.
According to the National Museum of the United States Air Force, Colonel Hess; Lt. Col. Russell L. Blaisdell, a command chaplain; Staff Sgt. Merle Strang; and other Fifth Air Force airmen and Korean social workers started what they called Operation Kiddy Car.
They rounded up orphans in Seoul, found them shelter and medical care, and collected contributions of food, clothing and cash. After commandeering 16 C-54 transports, they evacuated the children from Incheon to Jeju, an island off the southern Korean coast where Colonel Hess helped establish an orphanage.
President Syngman Rhee of South Korea awarded him a medal in 1951. Colonel Hess later donated the proceeds from the book and film to support a second orphanage near Seoul and adopted a 5-year-old Korean girl in 1960.
A reporter for The Air Force Times once conjectured that Operation Kiddy Car represented atonement of sorts for the accidental bombing in Germany.
“I do not know,” Colonel Hess said. Of course, anyone would be sympathetic to the plight of children, he said, but added, “At the time of the bombing, it seemed like just another mission, accomplished with a degree of success because at least one bomb had found its intended target in the railroad yard.”
As he flew back to France from Kaiserslautern, he recalled, he wondered whether he had killed anyone, but was more concerned about whether he had fulfilled his mission. “If I was suffering,” he wrote, “it was in some remote and subconscious part of my mind; for when I became a combatant, it was with the full knowledge that I had to accept killing in behalf of the way of life I had sworn to protect.”
Dean Elmer Hess was born on Dec. 6, 1917, in Marietta, Ohio. His father, Lemuel, was the city government’s electrician. His mother, the former Florence Miller, was a homemaker. Mr. Hess was a graduate of Marietta College.
After returning from Korea, Colonel Hess served in recruiting and public affairs roles until he retired from the Air Force in 1969. He later taught high school economics, history and psychology in Ohio. He never returned to the ministry. Besides his son Lawrence, he is survived by two other sons, Edward and Ronald; a daughter, Marilyn Hess; seven grandchildren and 10 great-grandchildren. His wife, the former Mary Lorentz, died in 1996.
Lawrence Hess said his father had grown up wanting to be a pastor. According to an article in Life magazine in 1957, when the film “Battle Hymn” was released, Colonel Hess once said his life so far — it was not even half over — had been a confluence of flying and faith.
“Flight brought me many times closer to God,” he said.
By RACHEL FEINTZEIG
Feb. 24, 2015 7:39 p.m. ET
Travelzoo Inc. ’s 438 employees spend their days trying to find customers a good deal on flight and hotel packages. To hear managers describe their work in meetings, however, booking a customer on a cheap trip to the Caribbean can serve a higher purpose: helping someone get over the death of a loved one or meet a future spouse.
“If we all traveled, there would be significantly more peace on Earth,” Travelzoo Chief Executive Chris Loughlin said he has told employees.
Can a job just be a job? Not anymore.
Faced with a cadre of young workers who say they want to make a difference in addition to a paycheck, employers are trying to inject meaning into the daily grind, connecting profit-driven endeavors to grand consequences for mankind.
In part, professionals are demanding more meaning from their careers because work simply takes up more of life than before, thanks to longer hours, competitive pressures and technological tethers of the modern job. Meanwhile, traditional sources of meaning and purpose, such as religion, have receded in many corners of the country.
Companies have long cited lofty mission statements as proof they have concerns beyond the bottom line, and in the past decade tech firms like Google Inc. attracted some of the economy’s brightest workers by inviting recruits to come and change the world by writing lines of code or managing projects.
Now, nearly every product or service from motorcycles to Big Macs seems capable of transforming humanity, at least according to some corporations. The words “mission,” “higher purpose,” “change the world” or “changing the world” were mentioned on earnings calls, in investor meetings and industry conferences 3,243 times in 2014, up from 2,318 five years ago, according to a Factiva search.
A Kohl’s Corp. executive said at an investor conference last year that if the retailer’s associates “can truly relate their work to some higher purpose,” they will sell more sweaters and handbags.
And at a Harley-Davidson Motor Co. investor event in 2013, the company’s marketing chief said “there is a higher purpose to the Harley-Davidson brand that is more than motorcycles.”
Meaning and purpose is a “fallow asset” that firms can tap to boost staff loyalty and engagement, said Bruce Pfau, who oversees consulting giant KPMG’s human-resources department in the U.S.
That firm is trying to imbue accounting with world-changing sweep, launching a campaign to boost employee retention and outside recruiting that highlights the broader purpose of number-crunching for major corporations.
The initiative kicked off with a video featuring company leaders that boasts of the firm’s hand in the election of Nelson Mandela and the end of apartheid in South Africa, the launch of NASA’s first space station and the release of Iranian hostages in 1981.
“We can see ourselves as bricklayers or cathedral builders,” said Global Chairman John Veihmeyer in the video. The company held a contest for U.S. employees to share stories and design digital posters touting the bigger impact of their jobs, and it netted 42,000 submissions.
In an interview, Mr. Veihmeyer said it can be tougher to convince an auditor of his or her higher purpose—“helping to sustain confidence in the capital markets”—compared with, say, the meaning a doctor feels when caring for patients.
Siobhan Kiernan, a KPMG manager, acknowledged that she’s not a brain surgeon or a scientist. But she is helping some of those people do their taxes.
“I can take the worry of doing their tax returns off their mind,” she said, explaining a poster she made for the contest that reads “I support advancements in medicine.”
Plenty of employees are fine with being a cog rather than a cathedral builder. About one-third of individuals feel their work is a calling, according to Amy Wrzesniewski, an associate professor of organizational behavior at the Yale School of Management.
Those who can connect their work to a higher purpose—whether they are a janitor or a banker—tend to be more satisfied with their jobs, put in longer hours and rack up fewer absences, according to Ms. Wrzesniewski’s research.
But for the two-thirds who view their job as a paycheck or a necessary rung on the corporate ladder, campaigns around meaning can highlight the fact that those workers don’t derive deep meaning from work, Ms. Wrzesniewski said.
“It’s trying to put lipstick on the pig,” she added.
One KPMG tax employee based in Philadelphia, speaking anonymously to avoid offending his bosses, described the video as “over the top,” and said it got him thinking about the lack of meaning in his day job. The campaign and poster contest prompted questions like, “If I want to really make a change, why would I sit here?” he said, adding that it reinforced his hunch that he would have to leave the company to really do good in the world.
An October survey by the company found that employees whose managers talked about KPMG’s impact on society were 42.4% more likely to describe the firm as a great place to work. Of those with managers who talked up meaning, 68% indicated they rarely think about looking for a new job outside KPMG; that share fell to 38% for employees whose managers didn’t discuss meaning.
Juniper Networks Inc. has spent much of the past year cutting costs, laying off workers and fending off activist shareholders. Two days after announcing a fourth-quarter loss, managers at the technology company gathered hundreds of employees in a massive tent it calls the “aspiration dome.”
“Certainly, we build awesome routers and switches,” CEO Rami Rahim said at the Jan. 29 meeting, according to transcript excerpts provided by the company. “But what we are doing really is enabling researchers to find cures for deadly diseases. We are enabling scientists to bring clean tech energies that make this planet a better place. We are bringing education to Third World countries.”
The company has asked 500 of its most connected employees—workers identified by peers as being trusted helpers and confidantes—to meet with groups of 20 to 25 colleagues about the company’s mission. Afterward, the “connectors” share tidbits of the conversations on Juniper’s internal social network, said Chris Ernst, a company executive.
“When you have 9,000 people who are committed to something much bigger than themselves, they’re going to get through lots of ups and downs,” Mr. Ernst said.
A shared sense of purpose motivates and unites the employees scattered at Travelzoo’s offices around the world, according to Mr. Loughlin, who said its deals have brought joy to an ill customer and preserved hospitality industry jobs during the economic crash. Employees recently produced a video in which workers’ testimonials about being part of something greater than themselves are set over swells of electronic music.
Still, Mr. Loughlin said a top employee recently told him that she doesn’t come to work to have fun.
“For her, it’s a job,” he said. “Not everyone wants to change the world.”
Write to Rachel Feintzeig at email@example.com
By WILLIAM A. GALSTON
Feb. 24, 2015 6:46 p.m. ET
‘I do not believe that the president loves America,” former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani said last week. “He doesn’t love you. And he doesn’t love me.”
If love for Rudy Giuliani were a true test of love for this country, a rapidly declining share of Americans would pass. Nonetheless, in the least artful and most irresponsible way possible, Mr. Giuliani managed to raise a genuinely significant question: What does it mean to love one’s country?
This much is clear: It doesn’t mean never criticizing one’s country. We all know the ending of U.S. naval hero Stephen Decatur ’s famous toast in 1816: “Our country, right or wrong.” But we often overlook the obvious: Decatur was acknowledging that his beloved country from time to time might be in the wrong. In the 1870s, Sen. Carl Schurz spelled out the full meaning of Decatur’s words: “My country, right or wrong; if right, to be kept right; and if wrong, to be set right.” To set one’s country right, one must state the wrong—and then act to correct it.
As is often the case, Edmund Burke said it best: “To make us love our country, our country ought to be lovely.” To the extent that our country’s beauty is flawed, we strengthen that love by working to remove its blemishes.
Love of country does require partiality, however. It would be more than odd for parents to say that they love their children but love their neighbor’s children just as much. Either they are not telling the truth, or the emotion they feel for their children is not love as ordinarily understood. In the same way, we do not love our country if we care about it neither more nor less than other countries.
It is in this context that the running debate about American “exceptionalism” should be placed. If our country doesn’t stand above others, the proponents of the exceptionalist thesis ask, then how can we set it above others in our affections?
But transpose this seemingly plausible claim to the family. Does this special love we feel for our own children depend on their superiority to other children? Must they be smarter, better looking, more accomplished, or of better character than others for us to love them above all others?
Of course not. We love them as we do because they are ours. We have a unique bond with them. In most cases they are literally flesh of our flesh and blood of our blood. When children are adopted, parents declare their intention to create through commitment the bonds of nature.
To be sure, it is hard to prevent love from shading over into a kind of boastfulness. Parents brag about their children—pardonably, at least within limits. Citizens inevitably move from love of country because it is their own to assertions of national superiority. Sometimes these claims are warranted. But beyond their due bounds, they become arrogant and dangerous.
In the Bible, God warns his chosen people through the prophet Amos not to expect special treatment: “To me, O Israelites, you are just like the Ethiopians, declares the Lord. True, I brought Israel up from the land of Egypt; but also the Philistines from Caphtor and the Arameans from Kir.” By the same token, no one is exempt from judgment—or punishment. Israel surely was not.
The Hebrew prophets are the classic examples of what the political theorist Michael Walzer calls “connected criticism.” This is criticism from inside a tradition, not outside, moved not by malice but by special affection for the object of criticism. Its objective is Burke’s: to make a lovely country lovelier still. In that spirit, Martin Luther King Jr. appealed to Americans not to live up to others’ standards, but to their own, set forth in the Declaration of Independence and nourished by the Bible. In that same spirit, on the first day of his presidency, Bill Clinton declared his conviction that “There is nothing wrong with America that cannot be cured by what is right with America.”
Presidents cannot be prophets. If they err, it must be on their country’s side. Still, America’s leaders on occasion have underscored the country’s misdeeds. Five years after Congress passed a bill declaring the treatment of Japanese during World War II to have been a “fundamental injustice,” President Clinton in 1993 issued a formal apology on behalf of the American people. That act did not weaken the country; it strengthened it.
And let us not forget: As the Civil War moved toward its conclusion, America’s greatest president delivered America’s greatest speech, daring to ask whether that bloody fratricidal struggle represented God’s judgment on our country—North and South alike—for the sin of slavery. In so doing, President Lincoln set in motion a process that, however delayed, eventually made America a fairer and stronger nation.
So let us consign Rudy Giuliani’s remarks to their richly deserved oblivion and get on with the serious business of improving our country.
A Place in the Classroom for Faith
A college president asks: Why are students today so uncomfortable talking about religious experience?
By MICHAEL S. ROTH
Feb. 20, 2015 7:13 p.m. ET
It happens every year. In teaching my humanities class, I ask what a philosopher had in mind in writing about the immortality of the soul or salvation, and suddenly my normally loquacious undergraduates start staring down intently at their notes. If I ask them a factual theological question about the Protestant Reformation, they are ready with an answer: predestination, faith not works, etc.
But if I go on to ask them how one knows in one’s heart that one is saved, they turn back to their notes. They look anywhere but at me, for fear that I might ask them about feeling the love of God or about having a heart filled with faith. In this intellectual history class, we talk about sexuality and identity, violence and revolution, art and obscenity, and the students are generally eager to weigh in. But when the topic of religious feeling and experience comes up, they would obviously just prefer that I move on to another subject.
Why is it so hard for my very smart students to make this leap—not the leap of faith but the leap of historical imagination? I’m not trying to make a religious believer out of anybody, but I do want my students to have a nuanced sense of how ideas of knowledge, politics and ethics have been intertwined with religious faith and practice.
Given my reading list, I often ask these questions about Christian traditions, inviting students to step into the shoes of thinkers who were trying to walk with Jesus. I realize that more than a few of my undergraduates are Christians who might readily speak to this experience in another setting. But in the classroom, they are uncomfortable speaking out. So I carry on awkwardly as best I can: a secular Jew trying to get his students to empathize with Christian sensibilities.
In recent years, I myself have become more accustomed to the awkwardness of my secular engagement with religious practice. After the death of my father, I sought out a place where I could say Kaddish, the Jewish memorial prayer. According to tradition, you don’t say this prayer alone; there should be at least 10. I stumbled upon a small, eclectic group that met early in the morning for a lay service (no rabbi). I could say the prayer with them, and eventually I would stay on for study sessions. Why was this atheist praying and studying? It’s about participation, I told myself. And that was enough.
The people with whom I said my prayer became part of my life. Prayer was like study—or was it the other way around? Studying with them wouldn’t mean I was abandoning my own secular worldview, I thought. I was learning about a tradition in which I’d been raised but had only dimly apprehended. I mostly ignored the question of belief; learning was enough.
The classroom is another kind of participation. As a historian, I want my students to learn concrete things about major events and daily life in the past, but I also want them to go beyond the facts and try to imagine how it felt to be at a certain time and place; I want them to participate imaginatively in the past while recognizing that this creative act can never be accomplished fully. When we read great books together, I want them to understand why an author made certain choices, how the arguments were first received and how they might be relevant to us today.
When we exercise historical imagination about secular topics, we have an easier time accepting the possibility that we might be wrong, that new evidence might change our minds. Religious questions seem to cut more deeply, arousing…well, some fear and trembling.
So why not just stick to the facts and timelines? Why not just show what is right and wrong in the work of the authors we read? After all, aren’t we now in a position to know the truth about many of the things that they could only guess at? Today we even know what parts of the brain light up when someone prays—or asks questions about prayer!
Those are the kind of objections I get from bright, confident undergraduates, and I try to show them that the questions asked by the philosophers, writers and artists we study have not been settled. Our job in the classroom isn’t to arrive at some definitive historical or philosophical truth about the past but to learn from exercising our intellect and imagination. The books we read together raise issues that challenge our assumptions, calling into doubt what many of us usually take for granted. The questions in these texts are ones to be wrestled with, not answered once and for all.
At Torah study, we begin with a blessing that echoes the commandment to wrestle with the biblical texts. We pledge ourselves not to memorize or obey but to engage with what we read. That’s what I want to offer my students, the opportunity to wrestle with basic questions of love and judgment, justice and violence, grace and forgiveness. What they believe is none of my business, but I do want them to have a sense of what it’s like to be absorbed in robust traditions, including religious ones.
That would be enough.
—Mr. Roth is the president of Wesleyan University and the author, most recently, of “Beyond the University: Why Liberal Education Matters.”
The Wall Street Journal
By E. Wesley Ely
Feb. 19, 2015
When his wife’s scream from the next room awakened him, Ford Callis leapt bolt upright out of bed. Then he fell, his left eye smashing the edge of the bed stand. As he hit the ground, the air gushed out of his lungs. Mr. Callis, who is 94, listened intently to the noise-monitor in the dark for any clues from his demented wife, Daisy, in the next room. He could hear his own heart throbbing, he would later tell me, but nothing more. He tried unsuccessfully to crawl to her.
The bleeding laceration on his eye, and his new shoulder and chest injuries, reminded him of the time 60 years ago that he’d been injured and trapped in a foxhole in the French Alps, a member of the famed World War II Lost Battalion. Rescue came then, and it would come now, since the morning phone call from his daughter had gone unanswered as he lay stranded on the floor hours later peering at the sunrise through the window.
Later that day Mr. Callis ended up on our ICU service. Lying helplessly on the floor after his fall, he had developed enough muscle breakdown on what he called the “death crawl” toward his wife that his kidneys shut down from toxic injury. He also developed a bleeding stress ulcer and a new blood clot in his left leg, all of which made for complicated medical circumstances that nearly ended his life.
Yet Mr. Callis kept asking only: “When can I return home to care for Daisy? She’s waiting for me in Ridgetop”—in the rustic house in Tennessee she bought 71 years ago with savings from her job as a riveter making planes during the war.
In the hospital our team of white coats swooped in to “save” Mr. Callis. Yet we later learned from what he told us that his real rescue, the one that mattered most, had occurred on a much higher plane, through a sacramental promise made many decades earlier.
The story began before he became a soldier, when he was 20, and he and Daisy had married. Shortly thereafter, he went through military training and shipped off to Naples, Italy, with the 36th Infantry. The company made its way to the Vosges Mountains of the French Alps, where the Germans surrounded them and began starving them out. Following failed rescue attempts by the two other battalions of the 36th Infantry, they became known as the Lost Battalion. After eight days without food and water and stuck in foxholes drinking from a pond and eating worms, they were liberated by the 442nd Regiment of Nisei Japanese-Americans.
And now, decades later, Mr. Callis was determined to rescue Daisy. Sporting a black eye but smiling from his ICU bed, he said: “Doctor, I need you to get me home to my wife as soon as possible.” His dutiful daughter stopped staring at the blood dripping into his IV and said, “Yep, that’s his main mission in life, and he refuses to fail.”
Through marriage, it became clear, Mr. Callis had undergone the type of indelible change in a soul that no personal injury or earthly event can undo. “Having someone believe in me and waiting for me back home, that is what gives me purpose. I am more than myself because of our marriage,” he said, expressing his hope that people not give up on marriage even when the sparks of romance seem distant.
All this brought to mind the words of the German Lutheran pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, when he wrote from a Nazi prison to his niece before her wedding: “Marriage is more than your love for each other. . . . In your love you see only the heaven of your own happiness, but in marriage you are placed in a post of responsibility toward the world and mankind. Your love is your own private possession, but marriage is more than something personal—it is a status, an office.”
The story of Ford and Daisy generated lots of discussion on hospital rounds that day. Theirs was not a tale of military or medical rescue, as exciting and perhaps technically interesting as those were. It was one of marital rescue. This covenant has liberated their souls and given them a higher purpose. Each of us that day, married or not, caught a glimpse of where our true north lies and a reminder of when we are at our best—in serving another.
Mr. Callis eventually regained color and strength, and on the morning of his hospital discharge he once more explained, “You know, it takes three people to stay married: Daisy, me and God. This is not just a civil agreement; we are one.” It was a beautiful echo another line in Bonhoeffer’s letter to his niece: “It is not your love that sustains your marriage, but from now on, the marriage that sustains your love.”
Dr. Ely is a professor of medicine and critical care at Vanderbilt University Medical Center.
By Ryan McKay
Ryan McKay is a senior lecturer in psychology at Royal Holloway, University of London.
Do we need religion in order to be moral? George Washington cautioned against “indulg[ing] the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion,” and today more than half of Americans believe morality is impossible without a belief in God.
The idea that religion is important for morality is not just widespread, but deeply ingrained. Psychologist Will Gervais has shown that even people who explicitly deny believing in God harbour the intuition that acts such as serial murder and incest are more representative of atheists than of religious people. Of course, prominent atheistic commentators resent any suggestion that the religious have some special claim on moral behavior.
In Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion he writes: “Faith can be very very dangerous, and deliberately to implant it into the vulnerable mind of an innocent child is a grievous wrong.” In a month when gunmen shouted “Allahu akbar” (God is greatest) while murdering 132 school children in Pakistan, it may be easy to sympathise with this viewpoint. There is no shortage of spirited rhetoric on this emotive topic, but what does the scientific evidence reveal? Does religion promote moral behaviour? In a new paper published in Psychological Bulletin, Harvey Whitehouse and I explore this issue.
What is religion and what is morality?
The first problem is how to define “religion” and “morality.” This is no mere matter of academic hair splitting. Take religion: What does it actually mean to be religious? Does it mean that one believes in agents or forces that transcend ordinary physical laws? For example, gods, ancestors, or karma? Or that one identifies and affiliates with a certain community or tradition – by being Roman Catholic, Sunni Muslim or Buddhist, for example? Or that one attends certain services and partakes in certain ritualistic behaviors? Each of these possible definitions captures phenomena that would not ordinarily be classed as religious – a belief in Santa Claus say, or national or sporting affiliations, or rituals in military settings. What is more, each of these tendencies may be underpinned by different psychological processes, with differential effects on relevant behaviors.
The situation is, if anything, worse where morality is concerned. According to the currently influential Moral Foundations Theory, there is no single morality but rather a set of mutually incompatible and incommensurable moralities, each underpinned by a psychological system specialized for solving a particular adaptive problem. For example, the moral foundation of “fairness” generates ideas about justice and rights, and is thought to have evolved to solve the problem of how best to secure the benefits of two-way partnerships. Depending on your cultural background and political leanings, your personal moral norms may be constructed on a particular subset of these moral foundations. So while some may consider appropriate sexual behavior to be of primary moral importance (the “sanctity” foundation), for others, morality may be more a matter of charitable concern for those who are less well off (the “care” foundation).
Assuming we could all agree on what it means to be religious and what it means to be moral, how might we go about investigating the relationship between them? One common approach simply involves asking people about their beliefs and behaviors. For example, surveys indicate that those who score higher on indices of religiosity – those who report praying regularly, for example – reliably report giving more money to charity.
So does this mean religion promotes charitable behaviors? Not necessarily. There is evidence that religious individuals are more motivated than nonreligious individuals to preserve a moral reputation, so it could be that the religious are more likely to report charitable behaviors simply because they care more about making a charitable impression.
Another problem is that a correlation between religiosity and charity (self-reported or otherwise) does not merit the conclusion that religiosity promotes charitable behavior. It could be that people with community-minded dispositions are more likely to gravitate toward religion (and more inclined to donate to charity), simply by virtue of those social inclinations.
To circumvent these problems, a number of studies have employed “priming” methods in a bid to establish causal relationships between religious concepts and morally relevant behaviors. In these studies, which began with the seminal work of psychologists Azim Shariff and Ara Norenzayan, religion is not just measured but is “experimentally assigned” to some of the participants.
For example, in a recent study, Mark Aveyard had 88 Muslim students listen to an audio recording of a busy city street, and asked them to count the number of vehicle horns they heard. In one condition, the Islamic call to prayer could be heard on the recording. The students then took an unsupervised mathematics test on which cheating was possible. Aveyard found that participants exposed to the call to prayer cheated substantially less. This finding is consistent with the results of other priming studies, which have also found that religious priming enhances cooperation and generosity towards others.
Muslims pray at a mosque in eastern China at the beginning of the holy month of Ramadan. (AFP/Getty Images)
So, religion may promote a love for thy neighbor (or at least neighborly behavior), but how big is the neighborhood? The positive picture revealed above is complicated by the results of other studies, which have shown that religious priming also elicits a range of aggressive and prejudicial behaviours. For example, Brad Bushman and colleagues found that participants who read a description of violent retribution commanded by God were more aggressive in a subsequent task than participants who read the same description but with the passage about God’s sanction omitted. And Megan Johnson and colleagues have found that participants primed subliminally with Christian concepts display increased covert racial prejudice and negative affect toward African Americans. Another recent study by Joanna Blogowska and colleagues revealed that self-reported religiosity predicted the helping of a needy member of the in-group but also physical aggression towards a member of a moral out-group (a gay person).
So, is religion a force for good? Ultimately there may be no easily characterizable relationship between religion and morality. Under the pluralistic approach we advocate decomposing both religion and morality into smaller units, such that the relationship between them fans out into a matrix of separate relationships between more basic elements. So some components of “religion” may promote some components of “morality” just as others suppress the same, or different, components.
In short, in discussing whether religion is a force for good we must be very clear what we mean by religion and what we mean by good. This rather nuanced conclusion may disappoint the polemicists, but – at least until this research field matures – a measure of restraint before we jump to conclusions about whether religion is inherently good or bad may not be such a bad thing.
Jan. 2, 2015 7:36 p.m. ET
ARNHEM, Netherlands—Two dozen scruffy skateboarders launched perilous jumps in a soaring old church building here on a recent night, watched over by a mosaic likeness of Jesus and a solemn array of stone saints.
This is the Arnhem Skate Hall, an uneasy reincarnation of the Church of St. Joseph, which once rang with the prayers of nearly 1,000 worshipers.
It is one of hundreds of churches, closed or threatened by plunging membership, that pose a question for communities, and even governments, across Western Europe: What to do with once-holy, now-empty buildings that increasingly mark the countryside from Britain to Denmark?
The Skate Hall may not last long. The once-stately church is streaked with water damage and badly needs repair; the city sends the skaters tax bills; and the Roman Catholic Church, which still owns the building, is trying to sell it at a price they can’t afford.
“We’re in no-man’s-land,” says Collin Versteegh, the youthful 46-year-old who runs the operation, rolling cigarettes between denouncing local politicians. “We have no room to maneuver anywhere.”
The Skate Hall’s plight is replicated across a continent that long nurtured Christianity but is becoming relentlessly secular.
The closing of Europe’s churches reflects the rapid weakening of the faith in Europe, a phenomenon that is painful to both worshipers and others who see religion as a unifying factor in a disparate society.
“In these little towns, you have a cafe, a church and a few houses—and that is the village,” says Lilian Grootswagers, an activist who fought to save the church in her Dutch town. “If the church is abandoned, we will have a huge change in our country.”
Trends for other religions in Europe haven’t matched those for Christianity. Orthodox Judaism, which is predominant in Europe, has held relatively steady. Islam, meanwhile, has grown amid immigration from Muslim countries in Africa and the Middle East.
The number of Muslims in Europe grew from about 4.1% of the total European population in 1990 to about 6% in 2010, and it is projected to reach 8%, or 58 million people, by 2030, according to Washington’s Pew Research Center.
For Christians, a church’s closure—often the centerpiece of the town square—is an emotional event. Here people have worshiped, felt grief and joy, and quested for a relationship with God. Even some secular residents are upset when these landmarks fall into disuse or are demolished.
When they close, towns often want to re-create the feeling of a community hub by finding important uses for these historic buildings. But the properties are usually expensive to maintain—and there is a limit to the number of libraries or concert halls a town can financially support. So commercial projects often take the space.
Europe-wide numbers of closed churches are scarce, but figures from individual countries are telling.
The Church of England closes about 20 churches a year. Roughly 200 Danish churches have been deemed nonviable or underused. The Roman Catholic Church in Germany has shut about 515 churches in the past decade.
But it is in the Netherlands where the trend appears to be most advanced. The country’s Roman Catholic leaders estimate that two-thirds of their 1,600 churches will be out of commission in a decade, and 700 of Holland’s Protestant churches are expected to close within four years.
“The numbers are so huge that the whole society will be confronted with it,” says Ms. Grootswagers, an activist with Future for Religious Heritage, which works to preserve churches. “Everyone will be confronted with big empty buildings in their neighborhoods.”
The U.S. has avoided a similar wave of church closings for now, because American Christians remain more religiously observant than Europeans. But religious researchers say the declining number of American churchgoers suggests the country could face the same problem in coming years.
Many European churches have been centerpieces of their communities for centuries. Residents are often deeply attached to them, fighting pragmatic proposals to turn them into stores or offices.
Mr. Versteegh sees the skate hall as a benefit to the town, saying it serves to protect the building and also gives youngsters a way to enjoy themselves in a constructive way. But he says local Catholic and city leaders refuse to support it, he thinks due to its vaguely rebellious aura. “We don’t know which door to knock on,” he says.
Church and city leaders deny that, saying they like the Skate Hall but cite its precarious finances. “Collin wants sweet love. We’re going to give tough love,” says Gerrie Elfrink, Arnhem’s vice mayor. “He wants the easy way—‘Give me money and then I’ll have no problems.’ But that’s not sustainable.”
As communities struggle to reinvent their old churches, some solutions are less dignified than others. In Holland, one ex-church has become a supermarket, another is a florist, a third is a bookstore and a fourth is a gym. In Arnhem, a fashionable store called Humanoid occupies a church building dating to 1889, with racks of stylish women’s clothing arrayed under stained-glass windows.
In Bristol, England, the former St. Paul’s church has become the Circomedia circus training school. Operators say the high ceilings are perfect for aerial equipment like trapezes.
In Edinburgh, Scotland, a Lutheran church has become a Frankenstein-themed bar, featuring bubbling test tubes, lasers and a life-size Frankenstein’s monster descending from the ceiling at midnight.
Jason MacDonald, a supervisor at the pub, says he has never heard complaints about the reuse. “It’s for one simple reason: There are hundreds and hundreds of old churches and no one to go to them,” Mr. MacDonald said. “If they weren’t repurposed, they would just lie empty.”
Many churches, especially smaller ones, are becoming homes, and that has spawned an entire industry to connect would-be buyers with old churches.
The churches of England and Scotland list available properties online, with descriptions worthy of a realty firm. St. John’s church in Bacup, England, for example, is said to feature “a lofty nave as well as basement rooms with stone-vaulted ceilings,” and can be had for about $160,000.
The British website OurProperty is less subtle. “Is modern-day humdrum housing your idea of a living hell?” it asks. “Is living in a converted church your idea of heaven above?” If so, “there is a whole congregation of converts and experts out there ready to help you make the leap of faith.”
Unused churches are now a big enough problem to attract the attention of governments as well. The Netherlands, along with religious and civic groups, has adopted a national “agenda” for preserving the buildings. The Dutch province of Friesland—where 250 of 720 existing churches have been closed or transformed—fields a “Delta team” to find solutions.
“Every church is a debate,” says Albert Reinstra, a church expert at Holland’s Cultural Heritage Agency. “When they are empty, what do we do with it?” Preservationists say there often isn’t the money needed to create new community-oriented uses for the buildings.
That debate can play out personally and painfully. When Paul Clement, prior of the Augustinian Order in the Netherlands, joined in 1958, the order had 380 friars; now it is down to 39. His monastery’s youngest friar is 70, and Father Clement, himself 74, is developing plans to sell its church.
“It is difficult,” Father Clement says. “It’s sad for me.”
In the U.S., church statisticians say roughly 5,000 new churches were added between 2000 and 2010. But some scholars think America’s future will approach Europe’s, since the number of actual churchgoers fell 3% at the same time, according to Scott Thumma, professor of the sociology of religion at Connecticut’s Hartford Seminary.
Mr. Thumma says America’s churchgoing population is graying. Unless these trends change, he says, “within another 30 years the situation in the U.S. will be at least as bad as what is currently evident in Europe.”
At the Arnhem Skate Hall, the altar and organ of the church, built in 1928, have been ripped out, while a dusty cupboard still holds sheet music for a choir that hasn't sung in 10 years. A skateboard attached to a wall urges, “Ride the dark side.”
Two dozen young men speed along wooden ramps and quarter-pipes, their falls thundering through the church, as rap music reverberates where hymns once sounded. An old tire hangs on the statue of a saint.
Pack Smit, 21, a regular visitor, says the church ambience enhances the skating experience. “It creates a lot of atmosphere—it’s a bit of Middle Ages,” he says, between gulps from a large bottle of cola. “When I first saw it, I just stood there for five minutes staring.”
Another regular, Pella Klomp, 14, says visitors occasionally stop by to complain. “Especially the older people say, ‘It’s ridiculous, you’re dishonoring faith,’ ” he says. “And I can understand that. But they weren’t using it.”
Mr. Versteegh, who oversees the hall, says city and church leaders won’t discuss their plans with him. The church needs about $3.7 million in maintenance, he estimates, and would cost $812,000 to buy, including the rectory—far beyond his resources.
Father Hans Pauw, pastor of St. Eusebius Parish, confirms the parish is trying to sell the church, but says church leaders have no problem with skaters using it for now. He said the parish is talking to a potential buyer.
“There are some things we don’t want—a casino or a sex palace or that kind of thing,” Father Pauw says. “But when it’s no longer a church in our eyes, then it can have any purpose.” As for the painting of Jesus holding a skateboard that now adorns the interior, he says, “I can see the humor in it.”
Mr. Elfrink, the Arnhem vice mayor, insists the city has done what it can to support the Skate Hall, helping fund the wooden skating floor and paying last year’s tax bill. “I hope it can stay a skate hall,” Mr. Elfrink says.
Mr. Versteegh sometimes wonders if it will. “Is there any point in continuing to do this if nobody is supporting you?” he says. “You have a building of value—historic value, cultural value—that is still owned by the Catholic Church. But there are no worshipers anymore.”
By E.J. Dionne Jr. Opinion writer December 31, 2014
It is a mark of our pluralistic moment that I learned of an old joke among rabbis from the writings of a great Christian scholar, Jaroslav Pelikan.
E.J. Dionne writes about politics in a twice-weekly column and on the PostPartisan blog. He is also a senior fellow in Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution, a government professor at Georgetown University and a frequent commentator on politics for National Public Radio, ABC’s “This Week” and NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
In his book “Jesus Through the Centuries,” Pelikan tells the story of a rabbi who is challenged by one of his pupils: “Why is it that you rabbis so often put your teaching in the form of a question?” To which the rabbi replies: “So what’s wrong with a question?”
Trying to imagine what will matter in a new year is daunting, but it takes no clairvoyance to see that in 2015, one of the struggles around the globe will be between those who acknowledge that religion is as much about questions as answers and those who have such a profound certainty about their answers that they will kill in the name of the divine.
To cast the matter this way, I know, invites dissent from both believers and nonbelievers. The believer can plausibly argue that you can be utterly certain about the truth without killing anyone. Nonbelievers might note that both halves of my formulation undercut religion. If religion is primarily about questions, what truth can it contain? And if it preaches certainty, where is the space for dissent and dialogue?
Holding on to faith’s middle ground — what my friend Arnie Eisen calls “moderate religion” — is one of the most important tasks in the world now. Eisen, chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, is not referring to a faith that is weak or tepid. Rather, he thinks that all traditions need to recognize the radically new situation in which they find themselves.
“The job market is global, and so is the thought-and-values market,” Eisen said in a lecture in November in Jerusalem. “It is more difficult for ‘The People of the Book’ to sustain the belief that it is in any meaningful sense ‘The Chosen People’ — or is ‘the’ anything — because an unlimited diversity of claims is literally in our face every time we look at a screen on a laptop or smartphone.”
Admitting this does not produce all the answers, but, as the rabbi in the story might say, it does lead to the right questions.
My hunch is that Pope Francis’s understanding of Eisen’s point has much to do with his worldwide popularity. A recent Pew survey across 43 nations found Francis with a median favorable rating of 60 percent and an unfavorable rating of just 11 percent.
Political consultants would love to have access to the pope’s secret sauce. Some of the ingredients are clearly personal: Francis conveys the reflectiveness of a holy man and the compassion that most hope religious engagement encourages. But he also manages to juggle the imperative of making tough judgments, especially about injustice and poverty, with an awareness that justice without mercy and understanding (“Who am I to judge?”) lacks both humanity and the sense of a God whose most important characteristic is mercy.
By simultaneously conveying a certainty about what his faith teaches him and a confident openness to those who are seeking answers along other paths, Francis gives an intimation of what holiness needs to look like in the 21st century.
One of my favorite political acts at the end of 2014 was the Senate’s confirmation of Rabbi David Saperstein as the State Department’s ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom. I admire Saperstein for many reasons, but why I think he is perfect for his new job was illustrated during his 2004 visit to my Religion and Politics class at Georgetown University.
It was around the time that Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” was released. Saperstein had been a sharp critic of what he (and many others) saw as anti-Semitic tropes in the movie. But several of my students had appreciated the film. Rather than launch into an attack on Gibson’s work, Saperstein invited them to have their say.
When he finally did express his view, Saperstein began with these words: “If you believe that the birth of Jesus Christ is the most important event in human history, you cannot help but be moved by this movie.” Only then did he offer his critique.
Religious freedom will thrive and religion itself will be a force for good only if religious people can convey this sort of empathetic understanding of the truths that others hold dear. In faith as in science, finding the right answers inevitably involves questioning our own questions.