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   Jeff Jacoby
Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe.

Copyright Boston Globe

Dec. 26, 2002

The religion grinches have been out and about, doing their best to make sure that the nation's public spaces remain unsullied by religious displays -- particularly at holiday time.

For example, Chabad of Southern Ohio, a Jewish organization, had to go to the US Supreme Court before it could put up a menorah in downtown Cincinnati. The New York City school system issued a memo authorizing displays of "Christmas trees, menorahs, and the [Muslim] star and crescent" -- which it described as "secular holiday symbol decorations" -- but forbidding Christian nativity scenes. A creche was permitted in downtown Pittsburgh, but under pressure from the ACLU, city officials ordered the removal of signs allowing 10-minute parking for those wishing to see it.

By now, countless municipalities have chosen to avoid all these hassles by simply banning religious holiday displays altogether. Likewise, many schools bar students and staff from wishing each other "Merry Christmas" or singing carols on school grounds.

The grinches claim to be acting in defense of the First Amendment, which they appear to read as a mandate for militant state atheism. But the purpose of the amendment's Establishment Clause -- "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion" -- was to shield believers from official interference or hostility, not to run God out of the public square. In the same week in 1789 that Congress adopted the language of the First Amendment, it also hired chaplains for the House and Senate. That was not the behavior of men who wanted government to be scrupulously religion-free.

Alas, we are a long, long way from first principles on the First Amendment -- witness the recent Ninth Circuit US Court of Appeals ruling that the words "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance are unconstitutional. Who knows if the Supreme Court will ever scrape away the separationist zealotry that has come to encrust the Establishment Clause?

So here's a different idea.

Rather than trying to defend City Hall nativity scenes or menorahs -- or school prayer, for that matter -- on the grounds that the Constitution doesn't forbid them, supporters should defend them by appealing to an even higher value: health.

After all, in 21st-century America, we justify all kinds of things in the name of good health -- from multibillion-dollar antismoking lawsuits to sex education in elementary schools. Why shouldn't public displays of a religious nature be embraced in the same way?

We may not ordinarily think of religion as a key to a healthy lifestyle, but there is no question that it is. Hundreds of scientific studies have found that religious commitment and practice are connected to longer life, lower rates of illness, greater stamina, and faster healing from injury. Numerous medical schools offer courses in spirituality and health; Harvard's annual conferences on "Spirituality and Healing in Medicine" draw huge audiences from across North America.

Abstracts posted on the internet by Duke University's Center for Religion/Spirituality and Health suggest the range of health benefits religion can provide. In one study, researchers studied the effects of private religious activities like prayer and Bible study on the survival rates of 3,851 seniors. "Even after controlling for social support and health behaviors," the abstract summarizes, "investigators found that lack of private religious activity continued to predict a 47 percent greater risk of dying."

Another study focused on the prevalence of religious beliefs and practice among cardiac and pulmonary hospital patients. Among its findings: "Religious activities and attitudes were inversely related to measures of physical illness severity and functional disability" -- i.e., more religious patients tended to be less sick or dysfunctional. Other researchers found that religious practice correlates with lower blood pressure, lower rates of smoking and alcoholism, more stable immune systems, fewer and shorter hospital stays, and stronger feelings of well-being and morale.

A study published recently in the International Journal of Psychiatry in Medicine analyzed the health records of 6,525 Californians over a 31-year period. The data showed that non-churchgoers were 21 percent more likely to have died than those who regularly attended religious services -- even after adjusting for factors like smoking and pre-existing medical problems. They were twice as likely to die of digestive diseases, 66 percent more likely to die of respiratory disease, and 21 percent more likely to die of cardiovascular disease.

None of this has to be explained in terms of divine intervention. People who take religion seriously and who consistently attend church or synagogue tend to benefit from larger social support networks, to have a hopeful outlook on life, and to feel more relaxed and accepted. For religious reasons, many believers are careful about diet, sexual behavior, and drug or alcohol use. They are also more likely to have stable family relationships. All of these are associated with healthier lifestyles; it stands to reason that those who faithfully practice religion enjoy, on the whole, healthier lives.

So let's stop thinking of nativity scenes or giant menorahs as displays of religion, and view them instead as calls to better health. Religion is good not only for the soul, but for the mind and body as well. Surely that's a message that even the ACLU would welcome.

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