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Religion, Politics & Sex (Part Two)

Religion, Politics & Religion (Part One)

Race_sex_religion_politics My new book, Otherwise, deals with the Trifecta of topics one is supposed to avoid in polite company -- sex, politics, and religion.

But you can’t explain intolerance without reference to those topics, and, in America, the three are intertwined in surprising and paradoxical ways.

The U.S. is unique in the developed world as a highly religious society.  Almost everywhere else, economic development and religiosity have moved in opposite directions. Poor countries are highly religious, but become more secular as they develop.  Rich countries become more religious following periods of crisis.

But compared to other countries, America has unusually high levels of what sociologists call "religious belonging, believing, and behaving." Some 83% of Americans belong to one religion or another, 80% believe in God, and 59% pray at least weekly. By contrast only 38% of Brits say they believe in God.  

The U.S. been an exception because of the particular way religion and politics influenced each other from the very beginning.  Many of its first settlers came here to escape religious persecution and most of its founding fathers were suspicious of state religions.

The result was a clear separation of Chruch and State.  But that didn't mean Americans gave up on religion.  

On the contrary, De Toqueville speculated that religion played an important role in balancing the American ideal of individual freedom with concern for the good of the community. At the level of individual values, religious and political beliefs moderated each other.  

No Church institution was pulling political strings, but the belief that we should treat others as we would want them to treat us tempered the excesses of a free market, survival-of-the fittest free-for-all.

Furthermore, joining a church has historically been the most common form of association in the U.S., even beating sports and other leisure activities.  And churchgoers have also had higher levels of civic engagement.  They were more likely to attend public meetings, volunteer at soup kitchens, donate blood, and vote. Their participation wasn't the product of their faith so much as the the fact that they belonged to a faith community.  It wasn't how much they prayed, but the fact that they prayed with friends.

People who have a lot of like-minded friends are more likely to participate in civic life. They're also more likely to meet people of different backgrounds. And making friends with people of different background makes them less “other,” increasing their levels of tolerance.

So while most Americans are highly religious -- as measured by their belief in God, their belief in an afterlife, and the importance of religion in their lives – they are also quite tolerant.

So most Americans believe there are basic truths in all religions. Relatively few religious Americans believe that salvation is only available to their co-religionists. And even the very religious don’t believe someone needs to believe in God to be a good American. 

Americans are, by and large, a rarity in human society – religiously devout, diverse, and tolerant.  How that may be changing is the subject of my next post.










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