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April 16, 2014 — There are two religious stories that Americans tell about the United States of America. One is that our nation is the land of religious freedom. We like to boast that we are the world’s most religiously tolerant and, that from the beginning, people came here to escape religious persecution and laws that prevented them from worshipping according to their conscience.
The other religious story is that the United States is a Christian nation. That claim has received many meanings over the centuries but, at the very least, it means that the religion of our founders was Christian and that most of its citizens have been and still are Christians.
Earlier this month, the respected Pew Research Center released a new study, titled “Global Religious Diversity.” It sheds light on the amount of religious diversity in nations around the world. In four categories ranging from low diversity to extremely high diversity, the United States was classed as only moderately diverse, the second category. The nation’s Christian character came through with 78 percent of its citizens being classed as some kind of Christian (including, I suspect, “lapsed” Christians).
To what religion do the other 22 percent belong? Well, it turns out that no other religion can claim even 2 percent of America’s citizens. Indeed, the second largest group, at 16 percent, consists of people classed as unaffiliated, a category that ranges from “none of the above” and people who can’t be bothered with religion to committed atheists.
This profile makes the United States similar to Canada and Europe, where the percentage of Christians stands in the 70-percent range and the second largest group is the unaffiliated in the mid-teens to low 20s. The main difference is that in Europe Muslims make up about 6 percent of the population and none of the other religions rise above even one half of one percent.
The United States’ combination of a Christian majority that emphasizes religious freedom is consistent with the nation’s history. When the Bill of Rights was written, and the character of the country’s religious freedoms laid out, the goal was not to provide a place for the religions of the world, but for the variety of different forms of Christianity -- indeed for the different varieties of Protestantism.
In the 1700s, individual religious freedom and the idea that governments should not dictate the approved (and disapproved) Christian denomination(s) of their country, was still new. Different American colonies favored Puritanism, Anglicanism, various Baptist churches and Quakerism.
When the country was founded, it was necessary to create a government that did not favor one form of Protestantism over another, and thus, make members of the other denominations second-class citizens. When Catholics began to arrive in large numbers in the 1840s, the legal system also was in place to accommodate them.
The United States’ approach to religious freedom has served its original goals well. We have the largest variety of Christianities of any nation in the world. Not only do we have a large number of Catholics and several types of Mormonism, but we have hundreds of different Protestant denominations and thousands of independent churches (many quite large).
It was really only in the latter half of the 20th century when the country’s religious freedom laws began to be used extensively for members of non-Christian religions. Prior to that, there was surprisingly little need.
Even so, it should not be surprising that the most controversial cases of religious freedom have been between the two main religious groups, Christianity and the unaffiliated. Given the nation’s religious history, Christian ideas and practices have become culturally widespread. Things shared by all main groups, such as the many types of Christmas celebrations, became ubiquitous.
When atheists began objecting to government-sponsored Nativity scenes in the 1960s, the so-called “culture wars” were engaged. This religious-focused cultural debate has grown and become part of the national political landscape. But the character of the debate shows our lack of diversity: it is primarily framed in terms of Christianity vs. “no religion,” and not as Christianity vs. other religions. While this nation is rightly proud of its history of religious freedom, that freedom has largely benefited only Christians.
Flesher is chair of the University of Wyoming’s Religious Studies Department. Past columns and more information about the program can be found on the web at www.uwyo.edu/RelStds. To comment on this column, visit http://religion-today.blogspot.com.