Religiosity in America
The United States combines high religiosity with political civility
— Charles C. Haynes
The United States is not only the most religious nation in the developed world, it is also the most diverse, with some 3,000 religious groups.
The United States is unique among nations in that it was founded not on kinship and blood lines, but on the values and philosophy espoused in the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, the Declaration of Independence, and the other writings of the Founders.
“At our best, Americans are defined by the principles and ideals that we share and hold in the framing documents,” said Charles C. Haynes, senior scholar at the First Amendment Center. “As we move into the 21st century and as we become more and more diverse, if we don't define ourselves along principles and ideals – and instead define ourselves along race, religion and other ways – we are going to have a difficult time as a nation.”
— Charles Haynes
How are Americans going to manage their religious differences and negotiate conflict as the nation becomes ever more religiously diverse?
Haynes believes the First Amendment and the values embodied in it — religious liberty and freedom of conscience in particular — are the key to national unity in an increasingly diverse national landscape.
“The First Amendment is really the core framework for dealing with these issues. It is, in fact, what we do share across our differences,” he said. “We have to think about the First Amendment in light of who we have become. That is very challenging. This requires moving from a model of unity at the expense of diversity, to a model that expresses unity in the interest of diversity.”
In other words, every ethnic and religious group must be able to identify with the common civic ideas and principles of the nation. And they will only be able to do so if the laws are applied equally and fairly.
“The atheist, the Sikh, the Hindu, the Jew – they respond to that American part of their identity if they understand that it is not weighted for or against them but is in their interest,” Haynes said.
Surveys consistently show that religion remains a major force in the lives of Americans. In a 2001 survey by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, 64 percent of the respondents said religion is very important in their lives. This number has remained relatively stable over the past two decades, after declining between the mid-1960s and late 1970s. The Pew figures are corroborated by Gallup polls on religion. (Updates.)
In terms of church attendance, the Pew survey indicates that 40 percent of respondents say they attend religious services at least once a week. Results from the same poll going back to 1996 have changed little.
Americans' participation in religion contrasts sharply with their European counterparts: In France, only about 4 percent of the population regularly attends church services; and in Sweden, church attendance is about 1 percent.
“In our conversation about religion in the United States, we tend to talk about religion as something that happened a long time ago, and what happens today has not much to do with that,” Haynes said. “Religion matters in this country; it has from the beginning, and it still does.”
Despite the prevalence of religion in the United States, religion, like politics, is a troublesome topic for discussion — especially when religion and politics are combined.
“For various historic reasons, we’ve gotten to the point in our country – and I think it’s reversing now – where it was considered bad form to bring religion into the public arena. It was a private matter,” Haynes said. “Part of it has to do with how we interpret the First Amendment, and part of it has to do with cultural changes.”
In discussing the role of religion in society, those with the loudest voices are those most often heard, and consequently it is the most extreme views that get aired. Middle ground isn't the most exciting news story.
“How can religion be a part of American public life and still be consistent with our vision of the First Amendment?” Haynes asked. “Are our choices either to have a public square where someone’s religion, or a cluster of religions, is imposed, dominate, take over; or a public square where we keep it out as much as possible. ... Are those the only choices we have? Many people think they are.”
But Haynes sees progress in this area: “Today, we’re starting to figure out a way for religion to be part of the conversation and still have it consistent with our First Amendment principles,” he said.
— Charles C. Haynes
Amidst these problems, Haynes believes that religious liberty and the First Amendment are the keys to political civility in America – which is better off than it sometimes seems. By comparison, a highly religious country such as Iran lacks the political civility of a true democracy; while the secular states of Western Europe are democratic civil societies but sometimes hostile toward religion. The U.S. manages to combine better elements of both examples.
“The United States is a nation with high religiosity and also high political civility. We are one of the few nations with both. Some nations, like those in Europe, have high political civility and very low religiosity; and other nations have high religiosity but low political civility. The place we are in is a very fortunate place, but danger lies ahead if we don't attend to the principles of this messy experiment called the United States.”
Portions of this article were reported by Fielding Buck.