Opinion

Why Americans are devout and diverse but not divided

They are increasingly tolerant of other religions and persuasions.

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In the Adderall age, many Americans are flitting from faith to faith, or from faith to no faith. The Pew Center on Religion and Public Life recently released a poll showing that about half of adults have changed faiths since childhood. Moreover, some 16 percent of Americans say they no longer identify with any religion, compared with 7 percent who were raised without one.

Those are just some of a passel of trends that have been reweaving the nation's religious tapestry. Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan warned against defining deviancy down. In a variety of ways, we're defining deity down. Have we gotten so skittish about giving offense that American faith is all but meaningless? Then again, the US is one of the most peaceful nations when it comes to religion. That speaks volumes.

For almost all groups, religious intermarriage has nearly doubled since the 1950s. Though two-fifths of Americans claim to have attended worship services in the past week, scholars believe that between a quarter and half of them are bearing false witness. Speaking of the Commandments, one poll found that 42 percent of Americans could name five of the 10 – whereas another poll found that 43 percent could name three of the five cartoon Simpsons.

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What's going on? "The idea of a plural society is so new to Americans that many will not even understand the term," Christian Century magazine said back in 1951. "It will be even more difficult to arouse their concern over the development because they will find it difficult to believe that any such thing can happen here." The headline read "Pluralism – National Menace."

It happened here, and, as Christian Century editors fretted, it hasn't been altogether good news for the Good News. Using 1990 data, economist Jonathan Gruber of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Mass., studied the effects of people of the same faith clustering together. For every 10 percent decline in religious density, by his measure, attendance at worship services dropped by 8.5 percent. Religious homogeneity boosts churchgoing. And the United States has become the most religiously diverse nation the world has ever known.

Such a society can try to reclaim the faith by slaughtering the infidels, or it can make accommodations. Perhaps the most important accommodation is to quit claiming that your god is the best. In 1924, Robert and Helen Lynd asked high school students in Muncie, Ind., whether Christianity is the one true religion. Yes, said 94 percent. Asked in 2002 if they practice the one true religion, just 17 percent of Americans said yes. Monopolies on truth don't go over well in a religiously multicultural society. Thus, such talk has gone the way of the walls of Jericho.

That's why most houses of worship are so easygoing, too – why they now welcome folks who try out faiths the way they try out screen savers. As John Updike wrote, the Christian church once could "exclude and excommunicate; now, unlike most other organizations, it will take us in if we so much as show up."

To be sure, conservative Christians stand apart. They aren't marrying people of other faiths at the same rate as other Americans, and they're considerably more likely to deem theirs the one true faith. When President George W. Bush declared that all religions pray to the same God, the head of the Southern Baptist Convention "corrected" him. But many of the rest of us can't tolerate such intolerance. A Gallup poll in 1989 (admittedly, the Age of Falwell) found that nearly a third of Americans wouldn't want to live next to a fundamentalist Christian.

"The toleration of all Religions and Persuasions," Puritan preacher Increase Mather observed, "is the way to have no Religion at all." Mather got it wrong, but toleration does recast religion. Is that a problem?

Not when you consider the alternative. Here, it's not Sunnis versus Shiites, or everybody versus the Jews. We are a sprawling nation of near-universal belief in a Supreme Being, of many religions, and, at the same time, of scarcely any interfaith strife. We're devout and diverse but not divided. No other country has managed to pull that off, and it's quite an accomplishment. By defining deity down, Americans keep the faith – and keep the peace.

Stephen Bates teaches in the Hank Greenspun School of Journalism and Media Studies at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

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