She was on a late night talk show in 1977. Actress Della Reese was being interviewed by Johnny Carson on NBC's Tonight Show. I thought I was seeing a re-run because the host and Miss Reese were talking about the hit TV series, Chico and the Man.
This was shortly after the suicide of Freddie Prinze, the talented comedian who starred in the series. But, no, they came around to the subject. And Johnny, predictably, went on and on about the comic genius and the great tragic loss of Freddie Prinze. Della Reese spoke authoritatively and with finality. "I loved that boy, I hated that deed." She would go on to become a familiar fixture in millions of American homes as "Tess," the motherly figure in the popular series, Touched by an Angel.
I identified strongly with what this sensible woman said at the time. A few years later, I was tasked at the U.S. Department of Education with working on suicide among youth. As a project officer during the Reagan administration, it was my responsibility to study this troubling issue in American society. As part of my duties, I had a briefing book given to us by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) in Atlanta.
That large binder included suicide rates for many ethnic and demographic groups in American society. At that time, I was familiar with the rates for various sub-groups, from Ashkenazi Jews to Zuni Indians.
When I thumbed through the binder, I noted that the suicide rate for Black women was exceedingly low. Almost zero. Could this be a misprint? I called CDC to check on the figures.
"We've noticed that too," said the desk officer in Atlanta, "we call it the BFPF."
"What's that?" I pressed.
"The Black Female Protective Factor -- they're very religious."
Suicide experts going back to Emile Durkheim in the Nineteenth Century have noted the correlation between religiosity and suicide. Those who regularly worship have far lower suicide rates than the unchurched.
Those who join clubs and activities, too, are far less liable to take their own lives. So Volunteer Fire Departments, Rotary, scouting, 4-H, Anglers' Clubs, etc., can be lifesavers as well.
In the Nineteenth Century, French political scientist Alexis de Tocqueville studied American society and institutions. In his classic Democracy in America, Tocqueville wrote about Americans' "genius for association." We love to join clubs, it seems.
We cannot read of tragic suicides -- like that of Robin Williams this week -- without wondering why. One reason may just be the active efforts to suppress religion in America. How can it hurt to get rid of public prayer and open acknowledgment of God? Increased suicide rates is one way it hurts.
Let's pray that Americans gain a greater understanding of the value to all of society of religious freedom. It used to be said: "The family that prays together stays together. "That was true in the 1950s. It's true now. It might also be said: Blessed is the Nation whose God is the Lord.