Posted by: Martin Fox | May 13, 2009

Why Americans are devout and diverse but not divided

Pluralism and Peace – an interesting read. I can think of a number of countries who would argue they have the same positive cohesion dynamics within their borders as well. Like we are fond of saying, “it’s all good.”

Peace out – Martin Fox with the Center for Global Leadership.

Why Americans are devout and diverse but not divided

By Stephen Bates at the Christian Science Monitor

Henderson, Nev. – In the Adderall age, many Americans are flitting from faith to faith, or from faith to no faith. The Pew Center on Religion and Public Life recently released a poll showing that about half of adults have changed faiths since childhood. Moreover, some 16 percent of Americans say they no longer identify with any religion, compared with 7 percent who were raised without one.

Those are just some of a passel of trends that have been reweaving the nation’s religious tapestry. Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan warned against defining deviancy down. In a variety of ways, we’re defining deity down. Have we gotten so skittish about giving offense that American faith is all but meaningless? Then again, the US is one of the most peaceful nations when it comes to religion. That speaks volumes.

For almost all groups, religious intermarriage has nearly doubled since the 1950s. Though two-fifths of Americans claim to have attended worship services in the past week, scholars believe that between a quarter and half of them are bearing false witness. Speaking of the Commandments, one poll found that 42 percent of Americans could name five of the 10 – whereas another poll found that 43 percent could name three of the five cartoon Simpsons.

What’s going on? “The idea of a plural society is so new to Americans that many will not even understand the term,” Christian Century magazine said back in 1951. “It will be even more difficult to arouse their concern over the development because they will find it difficult to believe that any such thing can happen here.”

The headline read “Pluralism – National Menace.”

It happened here, and, as Christian Century editors fretted, it hasn’t been altogether good news for the Good News. Using 1990 data, economist Jonathan Gruber of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Mass., studied the effects of people of the same faith clustering together. For every 10 percent decline in religious density, by his measure, attendance at worship services dropped by 8.5 percent. Religious homogeneity boosts churchgoing. And the United States has become the most religiously diverse nation the world has ever known.

Such a society can try to reclaim the faith by slaughtering the infidels, or it can make accommodations. Perhaps the most important accommodation is to quit claiming that your god is the best. In 1924, Robert and Helen Lynd asked high school students in Muncie, Ind., whether Christianity is the one true religion. Yes, said 94 percent. Asked in 2002 if they practice the one true religion, just 17 percent of Americans said yes. Monopolies on truth don’t go over well in a religiously multicultural society. Thus, such talk has gone the way of the walls of Jericho.

That’s why most houses of worship are so easygoing, too – why they now welcome folks who try out faiths the way they try out screen savers. As John Updike wrote, the Christian church once could “exclude and excommunicate; now, unlike most other organizations, it will take us in if we so much as show up.”

To be sure, conservative Christians stand apart. They aren’t marrying people of other faiths at the same rate as other Americans, and they’re considerably more likely to deem theirs the one true faith. When President George W. Bush declared that all religions pray to the same God, the head of the Southern Baptist Convention “corrected” him. But many of the rest of us can’t tolerate such intolerance. A Gallup poll in 1989 (admittedly, the Age of Falwell) found that nearly a third of Americans wouldn’t want to live next to a fundamentalist Christian.

“The toleration of all Religions and Persuasions,” Puritan preacher Increase Mather observed, “is the way to have no Religion at all.” Mather got it wrong, but toleration does recast religion. Is that a problem?

Not when you consider the alternative. Here, it’s not Sunnis versus Shiites, or everybody versus the Jews. We are a sprawling nation of near-universal belief in a Supreme Being, of many religions, and, at the same time, of scarcely any interfaith strife. We’re devout and diverse but not divided. No other country has managed to pull that off, and it’s quite an accomplishment. By defining deity down, Americans keep the faith – and keep the peace.

Stephen Bates teaches in the Hank Greenspun School of Journalism and Media Studies at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.



  1. I found this article fascinating and appreciate you posting it. While I never thought of myself as “flitting from faith to faith” I will admit that I have found myself examining then re-examining religion, church and the bible over the years and questioning my true feelings. I’ve attended several different churches in my lifetime, yet I’ve also gone through periods, such as the one I’m in now, where I don’t attend church at all. My knowledge of the many different religions out there is pitifully scarce, so I won’t presume to know the dynamics of each religion others believe in, but I don’t think that matters at all in this case. If God is the way I believe him to be, he would want every individual to believe as they personally are intended to in order to get them to the place on their life path that they should be. That belief will most likely not be a cookie cutter cutout of your neighbor’s because we each have a different purpose on earth and are not meant to think alike but instead to combine each of our gifts in order to create something more wonderful than we could ever create on our own. My own personal disappointment with the church is that whenever I’ve attended it on a long term basis, I come away feeling like it’s more about “running a business” than it is about believing in God and loving your fellow man–warts and all. After reading the article I realize that perhaps this is also the way other people are feeling and I take that as a positive sign. After all, if not being sure that any one religion is “right” and it leads you to be open to the validity of other people’s beliefs and thoughts and welcoming to outside ideas, isn’t that the point of it all anyway?

    • Well said… Thank you for the great comment.

      When asked which faith is the “one true religion”, the Dalai Lama answered “compassion and kindness”. Hmm, we think he is onto something…

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