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A Virtue That Drives Us To Action

Charlotte vanOyen Witvliet

The Study of Spirituality in the U.S. is the first nationally representative study to examine a key bridge connecting spirituality, religion, and civic life: accountability. 

Accountability is a common topic in conversations and news coverage about civic and political life in America. Calls for accountability in individuals and systems point to the importance of relationally responsible attitudes and actions, policies and procedures. For a democracy to work well, we look for its leaders in branches of government and its parties, its public servants and citizens to welcome their relational responsibilities with a view to their impact on other people and the world in which we live.

As a virtue, welcoming our accountability involves being both responsive and responsible to give another what is due. We can show our relational accountability both toward other people and also toward God or a higher power. 

The study provides novel data on the prevalence with which people in the U.S. see themselves as accountable to a higher power for the impact they have. Findings highlight that the majority of respondents saw themselves as accountable to a higher power for their impact on other people (71%) and the natural environment (68%).

Further, people who espoused their transcendent accountability felt guided by religion and spirituality, were involved and connected, and aspired to grow more. And, their accountability was evident in their civic attitudes and activities. They placed high importance on being informed, speaking up when others have been harmed, and the value of volunteering. They also were more likely to have reported attending community events, knowing their neighbors, interacting with strangers, volunteering, and donating. 

Some survey respondents also sensed a spiritual summons to hold political leaders accountable (40%). They voted frequently and were politically involved in the prior year—communicating views to government officials; donating to candidates, campaigns, or organizations; joining protest marches, rallies, or demonstrations, or signing petitions. 

Thus, the survey data—collected before the U.S. pandemic shutdown and anti-racism protests after the killing of George Floyd—speak to the ways that being answerable to a higher power for one’s impact or being spiritually led to engage in accountable practices are associated with the sorts of attitudes and actions that are recognized as important for facilitating a healthy democracy.

This Expert Insight is from Charlotte vanOyen Witvliet, Ph.D., Lavern ’39 and Betty DePree ’41 VanKley Professor of Psychology, Hope College