While other industrialized nations are increasingly secular, Americans remain highly religious—a fact underscored by the findings of the recent U.S. Religious Landscape Survey by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. In an interview, Trust asked Forum Director Luis Lugo and Senior Fellow John Green why secularization is one trend that America has not followed.
Green: It’s called American exceptionalism. The term covers a number of things: The fact that the United States is a very modern industrial country that is also highly religious is just one of the features that make the United States different.
There are basically three theories as to why Americans are still religious. One of them simply has to do with history, that the United States was founded as a country—at least from the point of view of European immigration—of people who cared very much about religion. In fact, many of them came here for exactly that purpose.
And if you look at immigration even today, we have lots of people still coming to the United States because it is a place where religion is respected, where people have the freedom to pursue their particular faith. So some of this just has to do with the way that our country was structured and organized.
A second hypothesis, ironically, is that the formal separation of church and state has done an enormous amount to bolster American religion. The separation is limited only to the relationship between religious organizations and governmental organizations. And much of American life, including religious life, is private from that point of view, and therefore not directly covered by those sorts of concerns.
On the one hand, there was no state monopoly on religion, which you’ve had and still have in countries that have established churches or established faith.
Lugo: Economists might say there is a free market in religion.
Green: But then on the other hand, the only way that religious services and religious institutions can be provided, with just a few modest exceptions, is by private action, voluntary action. And so you have not only a marketplace set up by law, a free market, but you have many producers and consumers within the market.
When we use these analogies, people oftentimes get very uncomfortable because they don’t think of the market and religion as being similar. And of course they’re not exactly the same, but there are certain similarities.
So the second hypothesis is that, because of the separation of church and state, we have strong incentives for entrepreneurial religious activity that produces this very strong, vibrant set of private religious institutions.
Lugo: Another way to put this is that there were two contemporaneous European models that the founders of this republic had in front of them—and they rejected both of them.
One was the older model of the established church, and that’s still true in several parts of Europe, where the government literally collects taxes to fund their favorite religious institution. Even in Sweden, a highly secular place, you would find these arrangements. Sweden recently severed its relations with the Lutheran Church.
And even in other places where you no longer have that, like Germany, you have relationships—institutional relationships between government or the state and religious institutions that Americans would be in the streets about.
So that was the one model, which was the predominant one. Then, at the time that the Constitution was being written, a second model emerged, which was a strong reaction to that. That was the model of the French Revolution, which not only severed the relationship between church and state, it went much farther—it severed religion from public life. Religion and public life simply just didn’t mix.
Well, what we have in this country is an interesting combination of institutional separation on the one hand, but very much of a free exercise on the other.
The ethos is, let’s not keep religion out of the public sphere, let’s accommodate the religious diversity that we have in the public square. So government, in a sense, sent out the signal that it was “secular” but secular in a way that accommodated itself to religion.
And I think you see this, for instance, reflected in our tax law with the deductibility for faith-based organizations, which after all had a big role to play in social welfare and education—which is another interesting distinction.
In Europe there was the emergence of the big-state notion, where the state basically controlled the social-welfare functions. In this country, because we’ve always had a much more limited notion of the state, it left a lot of room for non-governmental organizations, many of them religious organizations, to provide many of those services. And again, not with direct government subsidies, but through indirect government subsidies, so that if I want to give my contribution to United Jewish Appeal to help refugee resettlement, it’s tax deductible.
That’s an indirect way for government to basically acknowledge that citizens have these connections and we need these institutions. So it’s a friendly kind of secular, as opposed to the French reaction to the established church.
Green: The third hypothesis is related simply to the diversity of the United States. From the very beginning, it was not dominated by one particular denomination. And today, of course, it’s even more diverse than it was back in those days.
It may very well be that diversity itself generates more diversity. So having lots of faiths may not produce a secular society, it may in fact produce a pluralistic society, and there’s a huge difference between pluralism and secularism.
Interestingly, this is a point that some scholars are beginning to apply back to Europe: that with the diversification of some European societies, particularly the immigration of Muslims, European societies are beginning to rediscover their Christian roots. A lot of the secularization that took place in Europe occurred in countries that started out fairly homogeneous in religious terms.
Lugo: I would just extend the market analogy to say that it’s not only an open system internally. It’s a system without a whole lot of tariff protection, as it were—in other words, a constant wave of immigrants. I think this is a very interesting thing to look at, the extent to which wave upon wave of immigrants, who have tended to come from areas where religion was fairly important, has added to the mix and to the dynamism.
I would add one other thing sociologically here, and that’s evangelicalism. I think it’s hard to overestimate the degree to which the revivalist tradition in evangelicalism, in the context of a free market in religion, has basically challenged everybody else really to step up their game. I am surprised by the number of even non- Christian traditions that look at places like Saddleback Church and others. These are Muslims and others saying, let’s look at their outreach activities. Mainline churches, Catholic churches—now you see many of them sort of duplicating their practices.
So in most markets, when you have very, very vibrant markets, you always have a market leader. And if there has been a market leader in religion in this country in terms of being very aggressive and recruiting new members and meeting the needs of the congregants, it’s been evangelicalism. So I wouldn’t underestimate that important driver.
And that hasn’t happened in Europe. Evangelicalism, even though it began in Britain, has not come close to the success anywhere in Europe that it’s had in the United States.
Green: I think that’s very important, and in fact the rise of evangelicalism is related to the three previous hypotheses. Because a lot of the forbearers of today’s evangelicals came to the European colonies and then later to the United States precisely because they wanted to have the kind of freedom to evangelize that they weren’t going to have in other places. They turned out to be awfully good at it, and they found that they could compete with other forms of religious organization quite effectively.
But then beyond that, just the diversity of the country meant that there were many people to proselytize. And it’s interesting because the evangelical impulse has been around through almost all of American history. What we call evangelicalism today is just one version, but it was around at the time of the American Revolution. It was around right before the Civil War and, of course, in the late 19th century, and so forth.
It’s changed a little bit with the times, but that’s a very important part of the American scene. And in fact, in our data in the Religious Landscape Survey, today’s evangelicals often show certain distinctive patterns. They have competitors, of course, people who have other patterns, but they’re a very distinctive group. In religious terms they often stick out as being particularly devout, and they do connect their faith to politics, especially in certain areas.