Two religious leaders dropped by the office the other day to talk about social conditions in Detroit. They were worried about the lack of family formation in the city, the high rate of illegitimate births and the cultural breakdown that has led to a high rate of violence.
But they weren’t ministers. They were Muslim religious leaders — Dawud Walid of the Council on American Islamic Relations and Imam Abdullah El-Amin. Imam El-Amin spoke of having to enforce proper dress codes in his place of worship and his disappointment, at a high school dance, of a lack of adult supervision of what he considered lewd dance movements. For young men whose baggy pants were slipping down too far and didn’t have belts to cinch them up when they entered his mosque, the imam said, he would supply wire coat hangers to be twisted into service as pants-holders. Walid made similar comments.
Both religious leaders, not surprisingly, sounded like Protestant ministers or Catholic priests, worried about staying youth in their flocks. Both of the Muslims leaders said young members of their organizations were able, through the strength of their religious beliefs and the attention and concern of their families, to avoid some of the problems besetting Detroit through lack of family formation.
As the Michigan Citizens Research Council recently spelled out in a research paper on the city’s lack of financial health, about half of all households in the nation are still husband and wife families, but only about 23 percent of the households in Detroit fit that profile. While only 7.4 percent of homes in the nation as a whole can be described as female-headed with no husband present and with children under 18 in the household, more than 17 percent of Detroit households fit this category.
The imams contend that this is a formula for social breakdown. The figures bear them out. Seven out of 10 children are born out of wedlock in the city. Young black males aged 15 to 24 make up about 7 percent of the total population in Detroit but account for nearly 25 percent of the homicide victims. Last year. 102 young black males were murdered.
As the Muslim leaders were speaking, I was struck by their defense of the standard social norms that prevent these kinds of tragedies: strong families; respect for sacred places, an avoidance of out-of-wedlock births and a belief in a duty to the larger society, starting with one’s own faith community.
I was reminded of remarks made by Benjamin Franklin in his autobiography. He wrote of his lack of regard for a local Philadelphia preacher whose sermons, dwelling on abstruse matters of doctrine, were dry and ineffectual in changing the behavior of his congregation. But Franklin was filled with admiration for the effective preaching of English evangelist George Whitefield and its effect on the “manners of out inhabitants.”
Franklin was no moralist (and neither am I). He liked the ladies and was known as quite the roue when he was serving as a commercial agent or ambassador in London and Paris. Franklin’s long-suffering wife back in Philadelphia was resigned to his peccadillos.
But whatever his personal failings in his marriage, he was also a practical man. He managed his own affairs adroitly and provided for his family.
His maxims and advice were aimed at helping people stay healthy and prosperous. If good preaching and effective ministers helped in the cause, so much the better.
George Whitefield was a well-known evangelist in Britain and America. He was followed by John Wesley, the founder of Methodism. They are now recognized by historians as moving preachers who actually helped change British society. They preached the importance of family life and moderation in the drug of choice in 18th century England — gin. And it made a difference.
Alexis de Tocqueville, in his observations on the United States in the mid-19th century, remarked on the importance of religion in providing a kind of social cohesion in the face of the forces in America that could tear society apart — a culture of individualism, a limitless and sparsely settled frontier and the nearly perpetual warfare that marked the early existence of the nation.
Tocqueville noted that religion was one of the voluntary associations that so many Americans created and joined to help them handle their problems.
Detroit right now is a kind of tough frontier town. Things have come apart and government alone can’t solve the issues of poverty and illegitimate births that put such a strain on families, schools and ultimately the criminal justice system.
It’s possible to argue with their politics, just as it’s possible to argue with preachers of the Religious Right or Religious Left. But it sounds as if the Muslims Walid and Imam El-Amin are following an old and tried American tradition for dealing with tough social problems — keeping things together by creating a faith community that is effective in controlling destructive behavior.
Jeffrey Hadden is deputy editorial page editor of The Detroit News.