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A Democratic & Republican Religion

Marc M. Arkin

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The United States is without question one of the most religious countries in the industrialized world. Current surveys indicate that over 80 percent of Americans claim to believe in God, compared with 62 percent of the French and 52 percent of Swedes. About two-thirds of Americans claim church membership, 40 percent say they go to church once a week, 60 percent go monthly, and 43 percent describe themselves as born-again Christians. Three times as many people in the United States believe in the virgin birth as in evolution. Although twenty-nine million Americans say they have no religion, fewer than 5 percent of the population will admit to atheism or even agnosticism. Whether these figures reflect reality is irrelevant; the point is that the vast majority of Americans want to be seen as religious and think it unacceptable to be viewed otherwise, even by an anonymous polltaker. This is hardly surprising since 58 percent of Americans--as opposed to only 13 percent of the French and 25 percent of the British, but along with 89 percent of Pakistanis--think it necessary to believe in God in order to be moral.

Yet, at the very same time, thoughtful Americans of all denominations complain that religion is excluded from American public life. They point to the dominant secular culture and to the separationist constitutional regime that assertedly favors it. In fact, there are two separationist cases on the Supreme Court docket this term--whether a state must provide scholarship funds to support a student's training for the Christian ministry and whether the phrase "under God" can remain in the Pledge of Allegiance. The irony is that the Court sessions that heard both cases--like every other Supreme Court session--began with the invocation, "God save the United States and this Honorable Court."

This American inconsistency has a long pedigree; the same week that Congress passed the final draft of the First Amendment's religion clauses, both houses also passed a measure providing funds for congressional chaplains. Indeed, the Non- Separating Puritans of the Massachusetts Bay Colony--they who limited the franchise to adult male church members who had experienced a saving work of God in their own souls, and who were still hanging Quakers on Boston Common well after it was illegal in England--believed themselves to have established the most secular state in the world because they had no ecclesiastical courts and ministers did not hold public office. What is more, they were probably right. American religious history admits of no easy generalizations.

Read the entire article on the The New Criterion website.

Posted: 8/18/04

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