God’s “almost Chosen People”

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“We are a religious people.…” The United States Supreme Court likes to quote this dictum by Justice William O. Douglas, who coined the phrase to accompany a decision in 1952. The Court has not been trying to provide America’s pious Little Jack Horners with new reasons to say, “What a good boy am I!” The justices are not supposed to favor particular religions or to discriminate against irreligion. They merely have been explaining why their legal decisions take into account the sentiments of so many citizens on the delicate subject of religion.

Two centuries ago seers might have had good reason to expect the court one day to say, “We are a secular people.…” The charter for the new nation was secular, or nonreligious. Its Constitution differed from the written covenants of other nations because it committed no one to a religious faith. Nine of the thirteen original colonies had tried to perpetuate age-old European practices in which citizens were taxed for the support of privileged churches, but these establishments were soon to crumble. The First Amendment to the Constitution asked for congressional hands off where religion was concerned. Only a small percentage of the citizens then belonged to or attended churches, and the philosophy of the Enlightenment often beckoned the educated away from conventional forms of religion.

Two hundred years later, few protested when the Court, against that background, judged that “we are a religious people,” and not many would fail to recognize themselves in this portrait of the nation. But it is appropriate to ask, “Religious compared to whom?” Since the American majority traced its ancestry to Europe, backward glances across the Atlantic have always been revealing. Ever since Alexis de Tocqueville in the 1830’s, European visitors have come expecting to find a pagan America and have left dazzled by the varieties of our religiosity. By contrast, recent American travelers revisiting Christendom’s monuments in Europe have reported back that the cathedrals were empty and the people ignoring their historic faith. Europe’s religion sometimes seems little more than a memory, an item for the museums.

In recent years, as the art or science of poll-taking began to be refined, interviewers provided harder data to support the impressions of the trans-Atlantic commuters. The Gallup Opinion Index, for example, made news in the bicentennial year of the American republic with an account of ten thousand international interviews. People were asked, “How important to you are your religious beliefs?” and whether they believed in “God or a universal spirit” and in “life after death.”

India, still steeped in its traditional Hindu and Islamic traditions, turned out to have the most religious respondents. But among the industrialized nations, concerning which there was most curiosity, United States citizens gave impressive support to the Supreme Court’s observation. Trailing far behind in these three indices of religiosity were neighboring Canada and then a variety of European nations, Australia, and industrial Japan.

In the United States 94 per cent believed in God, while only 72 per cent of the French and West German people expressed the same faith. Fifty-six per cent of the Americans polled found religious beliefs to be “very important,” while only 36 per cent in Catholic Italy, 23 per cent in the United Kingdom, and 12 per cent in Japan made the same claim. On immortality, 69 per cent of the Americans were positive, while only 43 per cent in the United Kingdom and 18 per cent of the Japanese answered yes, they believed.

Slice the sample any way you wish. Take college-educated citizens. In the United States 49 per cent found religion to be “very important,” while in western Europe only 24 per cent did; 91 per cent of America’s college-educated believed in God, but only 76 per cent of the Europeans did; the 66 per cent of America’s collegebred who believed in immortality were balanced by only 46 per cent of the Europeans who had gone to college and still looked forward to an alumni association that lasted beyond the mortal years.

Polls are often flawed. Samples can be skewed. Statistics may mislead. Those who answer interviewers can deceive themselves. But with all reservations made, fingers crossed, and brows skeptically furrowed, interpreters agree that here is more evidence of the fact that Americans cherish the image of piety and want to give evidence that they embody it. So decisive are all the returns that thoughtful observers move on almost at once from questions regarding whether Americans are religious, to why they are.

Ask the promoters of organized religion why faith has prospered in America, and they will likely agree with Jonathan Edwards. In the Great Awakening year of 1738 the minister wrote of his Northampton: “The beginning of the late work of God in this place was so circumstanced that I could not but look upon it as a remarkable testimony of God’s approbation” of New England’s pattern of belief. No wonder Edwards could write “faithful narratives” of “the Surprizing Work of God in the Conversions of Many…Souls.…” Since 68 per cent of the citizens tell Dr. Gallup that God “observes their actions and rewards and punishes them for them,” it is plausible that many would still give God credit for their visibly religious character. But such an explanation does not rule out others and does little to explain why the Deity has granted Americans “most favored nation” status.