The Religious Divide In America
Wednesday - March 23, 2005
I read a suggestion in Atlantic Monthly that the religious divide in America is more about Protestants, brands of Protestants, Catholics and Jews than about the churched and the unchurched.
I suppose on some grand statistical level that’s true. After all, more than 82 percent of Americans claim to have a religious leaning and 62 percent thinks a personal God influences our lives. Atheists in this country are numerically insignificant, but form about 15 percent of the Western Europe population.
Americans don’t go around asking other Americans if they believe in God. Small town people do pay attention to which church their neighbors attend.
Most churched vs. unchurched confrontation occurs at arm’s length. Like the woman who e-mailed to complain that in my movie column about The Passion of the Christ, I’d referred to the Jesus actor as “a guy being kicked and flayed, grunting and groaning.” She wanted me to know that Jesus wasn’t “a guy,” he was the son of God and I’d best not forget it.
I’ve never had a home or restaurant meal with anyone who’s asked me if I’m a Godfearing man. I do get some emails suggesting that I’m an inch away from being struck down by a bolt of lightning.
One reason for this dichotomy in our who’s-who approach is that we learned early in school about the importance of the freedom of religion clause. The fellow next door may be a misguided Southern Baptist, but by golly it’s his right to have picked that wrong-headed affiliation. You can put him down with friends but not to his face.
Another is that there’s so much of every kind of religion mixed into communities now that it wouldn’t make much sense to make an issue of that — especially if the neighbor has six kids and you’re hoping he’ll shoe them all in your shoe store.
That doesn’t mean that in your own house you have to refrain from calling Quakers misguided pacifists or Catholics people with the mark of the beast.
Not so many Americans go to church every week anymore. Polls suggest only about onethird of the religious. So the fact that you don’t see your neighbor heading out with a Bible on Sunday morning doesn’t necessarily mean that he’s godless or unchurched.
And if my ear to the ground has picked up any trend, it’s that the real division is between the evangelicals and the quiet mainstreamers, between those who see abortion as a moral abomination and those who don’t, and certainly between the sides on the gay marriage issue.
If there were to be a new Crusade, it certainly would have more of a following if targeted at abortionists and gays rather than against atheists.
I get much more e-mail of outrage when I suggest nobody should care who gets married or who has an abortion than I do when my columns make people suspect that I am rigorously irreligious.
Luckily for my overworked e-mail server I am not prochoice, pro-gay-marriage and Quaker. Also, various religious factions get all worked up these days because they are so heavily courted by national politicians. George Bush got an uncharacteristic-for-a- Republican 25 percent of the Jewish vote last year. Will he turn that direction rather than to his Southern cheerleaders of the Protestant faith? Inquiring Methodist minds demand to know.
No politician courts atheists. None closes a speech by saying “I don’t think there’s a God, but may America be blessed by plenitude and goodness anyway.”
I haven’t been questioned about not going to church since I lived in Madrid in 1959. The Spanish police came to inquire about that and ask if I perhaps were a communist.
Here, I’m almost guaranteed not to get on anyone’s watch list.
Unless someone spreads a rumor that I’m a Quaker.
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