Christian America and Religious Intolerance

In an odd article that attempts to situate Anne Rice’s very public proclamation that she is leaving the Catholic Church within the larger context of American Christianity, Los Angeles Times religion reporter William Lobdell makes two apparently contradictory claims:

  • American Christianity is not well, and there’s evidence to indicate that its condition is more critical than most realize — or at least want to admit.
  • Culturally, America is still a Christian nation.

Vampire writer and gothicist Anne Rice may be many things, but bellwether of American Christianity she is not — this probably accounts for Lobdell’s confusion.

While it may be true that more Americans are distancing themselves from organized Christianity, the majority of Americans — 78.5% to be exact — claim affiliation with Christian denominations.  The statistic that has Lobdell concerned about Christianity in America is the growing number of people who say they are “Unaffiliated” (16% of Americans) with any particular faith or denomination.

What Lobdell seems to misunderstand is that the majority of these unaffiliated remain Christian; they simply do not identify with any particular Christian denomination or church.  This in fact is what Anne Rice said she was doing — leaving the Catholic Church but retaining her Christian faith in the gospels.  An astonishing 98% of Americans believe in God, and most of these believe in a Christian God.

This churched and unchurched Christianity, in turn, accounts for the widespread hostility to the construction of an Islamic center and mosque near Ground Zero, and a more generalized hostility toward Islam.  In “Why Has Islam Become So Controversial in America,” Max Fisher puzzles over this hostility and surveys seven attempts to explain it.

While there is some truth to each of these explanations, none address the fundamental issue: most Americans are Christians and American Christianity has long been — and remains today — exclusivist and intolerant.

This is not simply my perception or sense of the situation after too many trips to Wal-Mart.  It is a fact confirmed by sociologist Stephen Merino in his recently published article — Religious Diversity in a “Christian Nation”: The Effects of Theological Exclusivity on the Acceptance of Religious Diversity.

Merino’s findings are hardly surprising:

  • 66% of Americans believe it is “important” to be Christian in order to be “truly American”;
  • 65% of Americans believe that the founders intended for America to be a “Christian nation”;
  • 55% of Americans believe that the US Constitution actually establishes a “Christian nation”; and
  • 80% of Americans believe that the nation was founded on “Christian principles.”

Of these Americans, a large majority also profess belief in the principle of “religious freedom.”  But the freedom they have in mind is the freedom to practice a Christian faith — they are quite intolerant and unwelcoming of “other faiths.”  As Merino suggests, “when many Americans think of religious diversity, the have only Christian diversity in mind.”

Among evangelical protestants (and especially those in the south), Merino found that special enmity is reserved for two groups: Muslims and atheists.  This fact may explain Christopher Hitchens’ surprising article defending the construction of a mosque near Ground Zero.  The atheist Hitchens may have concluded that the enemy (Islam) of his enemy (evangelicals) is a friend.

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One thought on “Christian America and Religious Intolerance

  1. Adult Child

    Although I’m sure you know better, it may be worth pointing out that what will be built near “ground zero” is not, in fact, a mosque per se, but an Islamic cultural centre:

    “That it may even be called a mosque is debatable. It is designed as a multi-use complex with a space set aside for prayer — no minarets, no muezzin calls to prayer blaring onto Park Place. It would seem to qualify as a mosque about as much as a chapel in a Roman Catholic hospital qualifies as a church.” [New York Times, 7/26/2010;

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