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God’s “almost Chosen People”

July 2024
8min read

“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.

More mundane explanations of America’s pattern should begin with the formula chosen by the new nation about two centuries ago. The act of “separating church from state” removed most occasions for public resentment of formal religion. Anti-clericalism has consequently seldom been an agent of political partisanship in America as it has been, say, in Spain or Mexico. The Founding Fathers, in separating the civil from the religious sphere, made religion an escapable choice, something that could also be more attractive than when it was forced upon their ancestors. Thrown on their own resources, the churches had to win Americans’ hearts.

Charters and formulas for freedom do not make people religious. They only allow for them to be nonreligious or to be pious in an infinitely rich number of ways. Americans needed and possessed other assets. First among these was the landscape itself, the vast map of open spaces for refuge, colonizing, pioneering, building cities and utopias, fashioning new communities, and providing isolation for those who wanted to stay away from people of other religious outlooks. Certainly, they thought, God spoke through the environment with its “templed hills.” But human resources were even more impressive, as endless varieties of believers from Europe, Africa, and Asia came and had to make sense of that environment.

As the various peoples arrived, they brought along some traditions to forget and then chose to remember many of them. They eventually left behind most of their ancient and tribal customs, Old World languages and customs and recipes. But through the centuries they kept on having to ask who they were in this new and bewildering place. To whom and to what did they belong in a mobile society? What might they hope for in a culture that inspired so many competing dreams?


Given such resources and needs, why are we a “religious people”? Conservatives will be offended by one plausible answer, and progressives by a different version of the same. Conservatives first. They have warred against evolutionary theories since before Darwin, but in religious life they live out an example of evolutionary development. By evolution here I mean something far more subtle than the crude motifs of “natural selection” and the “survival of the fittest,” though these have also been visible in American piety. Evolution rather refers to the ability of religious groups to adapt to their complex environments with ever more complex forms. Eventually they came up with a “church of your choice” for almost everyone, with a cafeteria line of spiritual options for most tastes, and with custom-made faiths for every kind of customer and consumer.

American religious history is a stunning story of adaptation and diversification of choices. In the early nineteenth century, the earnestly pious set out to reform the nation. They developed answers to questions yet dimly asked, cures for diseases only vaguely then felt, solutions to problems only rarely yet perceived. People invented societies for all purposes, to the ultimate point of forming local branches of the London Society for Providing Trusses for the Ruptured Poor. Ever since, religious decline would have spelled trouble for reform of society or voluntary action to improve it. From abolition through the clerical activism of recent years, the pious have agitated on both sides of most worthwhile disputes. Even today people channel far more than half their charitable dollars through religious agencies, and give more than half their hours of voluntary service to churches.

In quiet ways religion is locked into too many parts of too many peoples’ lives to slip easily away. Churches and synagogues may be more than burial societies, but they are at least that. They also provide outlets for the expression of egos, places to be seen and accepted, occasions for spiritual enjoyment, and where they do this well there is little danger of their decline. European clerics, by contrast, talk ruefully about apathetic life in tail-ending establishments. There, some say, people come to church only on the four wheels of baby carriages for christening, limousines for marriage, and hearses for burials—to be “hatched, matched, and dispatched.”

Established European religion did far less adapting and diversifying. After World War II, for example, we heard much of the lay renewal in Christian Europe. In 1960 I thought it timely to seek out the traces. Typically, a Dutch cleric showed me a new room with a table and eight chairs that was attached to his old church. It was, he said, “the locale of our lay emphasis.” A thriving American church would have had a gymnasium, credit union, nursery, art galleries, business office, senior citizens’ center, sanctuary, and bookstore.

Religious liberals, not always friends of the competitive free market, will not enjoy seeing it credited with helping provide for their religious prosperity. Americans, in such a reading, are religious because competitive religious groups have successfully exploited every changing taste and need. The capitalist model inspired a century of competition and lived on in an ecumenical age when milder-mannered leaders became uneasy over the churches’ efforts to do each other in.

When the American West was opened, Baptists, Methodists, and Disciples of Christ lunged at each other as they raced to overwhelm the old colonial denominations—the Congregationalists, Episcopalians, and Presbyterians—and to keep Catholics at bay or away. When boatloads of later Europeans arrived, they were often only nominal Catholics or Protestants, but priests and missionaries met their boats, cajoled them into showing loyalty, and inspired them to activity. When conventional options did not offer the right products, new religions arose: Mormon, Adventist, Christian Scientist, Jehovah’s Witnessing, Theosophist. Blacks turned the church into the chief zone of their common life. Dispersed Jews often converged on synagogues. It was not easy to escape the nets thrown out by religions of all sorts. Today new groups derived from Asian, African, or occult sources have borrowed the familiar aggressive tactics of Western faiths.

Competition and divisiveness have been played down at least since 1908, when the Protestants’ Federal Council of Churches was formed, and certainly since the Catholics’ Second Vatican Council in the 1960’s. Jews have sought “brotherhood” through the years. The spiritual climate is generally friendlier. Still, in 1972 Dean M. Kelley provided shock treatment for brotherhood’s shock troops when he showed in Why Conservative Churches Are Growing that it was the blatantly competitive and unfriendly churches that prospered in the new market.

Consumer-oriented religion has finally become so custom-made that in America’s free climate there seem to be not simply as many religions as there are churches—over 220 in the Yearbook of American Churches —but as there are citizens. German sociologist Thomas Luckmann speaks of “the invisible religion,” the faith that survives in the high-rise apartment or over the long weekend, far from rabbi, priest, and minister. This is the spirituality of the do-it-yourself American religionists who blend a completely private mix of everything from astrology to Zen, of mail-ordered, televised, and Great Booked options that satisfy their own search for meaning even if the result cannot easily be transmitted to others or to new generations.

Not everyone has taken such private religion lying down. Racial, ethnic, and denominational groups have been talking again the common language of tribe and peoplehood. Public philosophers from Benjamin Franklin in 1749 with his “publick Religion” to Robert Bellah and his “civil religion” in 1967 have tried to minister to the American hunger for wholeness. “We are a religious people,” and many of us do come together around occasions provided by presidential inaugural addresses, public holidays, and elementary-school ceremonies. Major writers took the old biblical language about God’s elect people and Americanized it. Thus Herman Melville boasted: “We Americans are the peculiar, chosen people-the Israel of our time; we bear the ark of the liberties of the world.” Even Abraham Lincoln thought his were God’s “almost chosen people.” Such language by fusing spirituality with national purpose contributed to our sense of mission and manifest destiny, thus assuring religion a secure place whenever Americans have wanted to take on something for which they needed courage.

When the arrival of religious freedom brought the possibility of freedom from religion two centuries ago, few citizens lost faith and many gained it. With the onset of modernity, whatever it was supposed to mean, prophets predicted the death of God and the demise of religion. Not all believers try to account for God’s ways, but religion itself did not die. It was simply relocated, sometimes disguised, busy seeking to fill society’s many nooks and crannies that offer growth to both old and new religious organizations and private emphases. If the polls are correct, few are trying to evade religion’s claims or appeals. So long as citizens seek freedom and justice, hunger to be whole, want to be saved, and wish to know who they are and to whom they belong, many are likely to find new ways to give support to the Court’s claim that “we are a religious people.” The American majority, for all their secular styles and worldly concerns, are likely to see in such expressions what Jonathan Edwards perceived in the 1730’s, “the Surprizing Work of God.” And they will gladly say so to Dr. Gallup or anyone else who asks.


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