Who Are We? The Challenges to America’s National Identity
Samuel B. Huntington
Excerpts from Chapter 5 – Religion and Christianity
God, the Cross, and America
In June 2002, a three-judge panel of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco decided by a 2-to-1 vote that the words “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance were a violation of the separation of church and state. These words, the judges said, constituted “an endorsement of religion” and “a profession of religious belief … in monotheism.” Hence the 1954 act of Congress adding them to the Pledge was unconstitutional, and public school teachers, as state employees, could not recite them in class. The dissenting judge argued that the First Amendment simply required governmental neutrality toward religion and that the threat the two words posed to “our First Amendment freedoms is picayune at most.”
The court’s decision stimulated vigorous controversy on an issue central to America’s identity. Supporters of the decision argued that the United States is a secular country, that the First Amendment prohibited governmental rhetorical and material support for religion, and that people should be able to pledge allegiance to their country without implicitly also affirming a belief in God. Critics pointed out that the phrase was perfectly consonant with the views of the framers of the Constitution, that Lincoln had used these words in the Gettysburg Address, that the Supreme Court had long held that no one could be compelled to say the Pledge, and that President Eisenhower was correct when he described the words as simply “reaffirming the transcendence of religious faith in America’s heritage and future.”
The supporters of the court were an articulate but very small minority. The critics were an outraged and overwhelming majority of all political persuasions. President Bush termed the decision “ridiculous.” The Democratic Senate majority leader, Tom Daschle, called it “nuts”; Governor George Pataki of New York said it was “junk justice.” The Senate passed a resolution, 99 to 0, urging that the decision be reversed, and members of the House of Representatives gathered on the steps of the Capitol to recite the Pledge and sing “God Bless America.” A Newsweek poll found that 87 percent of the public supported inclusion of the words while 9 percent opposed. Eighty-four percent also said they approved of references to God in public settings, including schools and government buildings, so long as no “specific religion” was mentioned.’
The court’s decision sharply posed the issue of whether America is a secular or religious nation. The support for “under God” reflected the extent to which Americans are one of the most religious people in the world, particularly compared to the peoples of other highly industrialized democracies. Americans nonetheless tolerate and respect the rights of atheists and nonbelievers. Dr. Michael Newdow, however, according to the New York Times, planned “to ferret out all insidious uses of religion in daily life.” “Why should I be made to feel like an outsider?” he asked. The court agreed that the words “under God” sent “a message to unbelievers that they are outsiders, not full members of the political community.”‘ Dr. Newdow and the court majority got it right: atheists are “outsiders” in the American community. As unbelievers they do not have to recite the Pledge or to engage in any religiously tainted practice of which they disapprove. They also, however, do not have the right to impose their atheism on all those Americans whose beliefs now and historically have defined America as a religious nation.
Is America also a Christian nation? The statistics say yes; 80 percent to 85 percent of Americans regularly identify themselves as Christians. Yet there is a difference between government support for religion in general, which occurs in many ways, and government support exclusively or especially for any particular religion, including Christianity.
This issue came to the fore in 1999 in Boise, Idaho, in a challenge to a sixty-foot cross that had stood for forty-three years on publicly owned land. In this and other cases involving tall crosses (forty-three and 103 feet high) on public land in San Diego and San Francisco, backers of the cross attempted to preserve it by transferring ownership of the land to private groups, thus implicitly recognizing problems involved in the blatant government display of the symbol of only one religion. As Brian Cronin, the challenger of the Boise cross, argued, “For Buddhists, Jews, Muslims and other non-Christians in Boise, the cross only drives home the point that they are strangers in a strange land.”‘ Like Dr. Newdow and the Ninth Circuit judges, Mr. Cronin was on target. America is a predominantly Christian nation with a secular government. Non-Christians may legitimately see themselves as strangers because they or their ancestors moved to this “strange land” founded and peopled by Christians, even as Christians become strangers by moving to Israel, India, Thailand, or Morocco.
A Religious People
Americans have been extremely religious and overwhelmingly Christian throughout their history. The seventeenth-century settlers, as we have seen, founded their communities in America in large part for religious reasons. Eighteenth-century Americans and their leaders saw their Revolution in religious and largely biblical terms. In America, “the Bible played a role in shaping the culture for which there was no European parallel. . . . American Protestants were united behind the principle of Scriptura sola.” The Revolution reflected their “covenant with God” and was a war between “God’s elect” and the British “Antichrist.” Jefferson, Paine, and other Deists or nonbelievers felt it necessary to invoke religion to justify the Revolution.’ The Continental Congress declared days of fasting to implore the forgiveness and help of God and days of thanksgiving for what He had done to promote their cause. Well into the nineteenth century, Sunday church services were held in the chambers of the Supreme Court as well as the House of Representatives. The Declaration of Independence appealed to “Nature’s God,” the “Creator,” “the Supreme Judge of the World,” and “divine Providence” for approval, legitimacy, and protection.
The Constitution includes no such references. Its text is strictly secular. Yet its framers firmly believed that the republican government they were creating could only last if it was deeply rooted in morality and religion. “A Republic can only be supported by pure religion or austere morals,” John Adams said. The Bible offers “the only system that ever did or ever will preserve a republic in the world.” “Our constitution was made only for a moral and religious people.” Washington agreed: “Reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principles.” The happiness of the people, good order, and civil government, the Massachusetts constitution of 1780 declared, “essentially depend on piety, religion, and morality.” Fifty years after the Constitution was adopted, Tocqueville reported that all Americans held religion “to be indispensable to the maintenance of republican institutions. This opinion is not peculiar to a class of citizens or to a party, but it belongs to the whole nation and to every rank of society.”‘
The words “separation of church and state” do not appear in the Constitution, and, as Sidney Mead has pointed out, Madison spoke not of “church” and “state,” European concepts with little relevance to America, but of “sects” and “Civil authority,” and the “line” not the “wall” between them.’ Religion and society were coterminous. The prohibition of an established national religion and the gradual disestablishment of state religions promoted the growth of religion in society. “As the state’s authority in religion faded,” Jon Butler notes, “denominational authority expanded,” leading to “the single most important institutional development of post-revolutionary Christianity: the shift of religious authority away from the state and toward the ‘voluntary’ institutional bodies. Out of this shift came an extraordinary expansion of denominational institutions, new means to reach great numbers of individuals and groups, and a new confidence to shape society and its values.”‘
Some people cite the absence of religious language in the Constitution and the provisions of the First Amendment as evidence that America is fundamentally a secular country. Nothing could be further from the truth. At the end of the eighteenth century, religious establishments existed throughout European countries and in several American states. State control of the church was a key element of state power, and the established church, in turn, provided legitimacy to the state. The framers of the American Constitution prohibited an established national church in order to limit the power of government and to protect and strengthen religion. The “separation of church and state” is the corollary to the identity of religion and society. Its purpose, as William McLoughlin has said, was not to establish freedom from religion but to establish freedom for religion. It was spectacularly successful. In the absence of a state religion, Americans were not only free to believe as they wished but also free to create whatever religious communities and organizations they wished. As a result, Americans have been unique among, peoples in the diversity of sects, denominations, and religious movements to which they have given birth, almost all embodying some form of Protestantism. When substantial numbers of Catholic immigrants arrived, it was eventually possible to accept Catholicism as one more denomination within the broad framework of Christianity. The proportion of the population who were “religious adherents,” that is church members, increased fairly steadily through most of American history.’
European observers repeatedly commented on the high levels of religious commitment of Americans compared to that of their own peoples. As usual, Tocqueville said it most eloquently: “On my arrival in the United States the religious aspect of the country was the first thing that struck my attention, and the longer I stayed there, the more I perceived the great political consequences resulting from this new state of things.” In France religion and liberty opposed each other. The Americans, in contrast, “have succeeded … combining admirably . the spirit of religion and the spirit of liberty.” Religion in America “must be regarded as the first of their political institutions.” Tocqueville’s Swiss-German contemporary Philip Schaff similarly noted the centrality of religion in America and approvingly quoted a Jewish observer: “The United States is by far the most religious and Christian country in the world; and that, just because religion is there most free.” The number and variety of churches, religious schools, missionary activities, “Bible and Tract Societies,” and revivals, along with the high levels of church attendance, all were “expressions of the general Christian character of the people, in which the Americans are already in advance of most of the old Christian nations of Europe.”‘
A half century after Tocqueville and Schaff, James Bryce came to similar conclusions. The Americans are “a religious people”; religion “influences conduct … probably more than it does in any other modern country, and far more than it did in the so-called ages of faith.” And again, “the influence of Christianity seems to be … greater and more widespread in the United States than in any part of western Continental Europe, and I think greater than in England.” A half century after Bryce, the eminent Swedish observer Gunnar Myrdal judged that “America probably is still the most religious country in the Western world.” And a half century after him, the English historian Paul Johnson described America as “a God-fearing country, with all it implies.” America’s religious commitment “is a primary source—the primary source, I think—of American exceptionalism.” He went on to quote Lincoln on how God shapes events and how Lincoln hoped God was supporting the Union cause and then commented: “It is impossible to imagine Lincoln’s European contemporaries, Napoleon III, Bismarck, Marx, or Disraeli, thinking in these terms. Lincoln did so in the certainty that most of his fellow Americans could and did think along similar lines.”
Overwhelming majorities of Americans affirm religious beliefs. When asked in 1999 whether they believed in God or a universal spirit, or neither, 86 percent of those polled said they believed in God, 8 percent in a universal spirit, and 5 percent in neither. When asked in 2003 simply whether they believed in God or not, 92 percent said yes. In a series of 2002-2003 polls, 57 percent to 65 percent of Americans said religion was very important in their life, 23 percent to 27 percent said fairly important, and 12 percent to 18 percent said not very important. Seventy-two percent to 74 percent said they believed in life after death, while 17 percent said they did not. In 1996, 39 percent of Americans said they believed the Bible is the actual word of God and should be taken literally; 46 percent said they believed the Bible is the word of God but not everything in it should be taken literally word for word; 13 percent said it is not the word of God.”
Large proportions of Americans also appear to be active in the practice of their religion. In 2002-2003, 63 percent to 66 percent of Americans claimed membership in a church or synagogue. Thirty-eight percent to 44 percent said they had attended church or synagogue in the last seven days. Twenty-nine percent to 37 percent said they went to church at least once a week, 8 percent to 14 percent almost every week, 11 percent to 18 percent about once a month, 24 percent to 30 percent seldom or a few times a year, and 13 percent to 18 percent never. In 2002-03, 58 percent to 60 percent of Americans said they prayed one or more times a day, 20 percent to 23 percent once or more a week, 8 percent to 11 percent less than once a week, and 9 percent to 11 percent never. Given human nature, these claims of religious practice were undoubtedly overstated, but even discounting for this, the level of religious activity was still high; and the extent to which Americans believe the right response is to affirm their religiosity is itself evidence of the centrality of religious norms in American society. More than twice as many Americans belong to religious organizations as to any other type of organization; Americans direct 42.4 percent of their charitable giving to religious organizations, three times as much as to any other category; and reportedly in any one week more Americans go to church than go to sporting events.”
Reflecting on the depth of American religiosity, the Swedish theologian Krister Stendhal remarked that “Even the atheists in America speak in a religious key.” That may be the case, but only 10 percent or less of Americans espouse atheism, and most Americans do not approve of it. In 1992, 68 percent of Americans said that a belief in God is very important or extremely important for a true American, with blacks and Hispanics holding this view more strongly than whites. Americans view atheists more unfavorably than most other minorities. A 1973 poll asked: “Should a socialist or an atheist be allowed to teach in a college or university?” The community leaders surveyed approved of both teaching. The American public as a whole agreed that socialists could teach (52 percent yes, 39 percent no), but decisively rejected the idea of atheists on college or university faculties (38 percent yes, 57 percent no). Since the 1930s, the willingness of Americans to vote for presidential candidates from minorities has increased dramatically, with over 90 percent of those polled in 1999 saying they would vote for a black, a Jew, or a woman for president, while 59 percent were willing to vote for a homosexual. Only 49 percent, however, were willing to vote for an atheist for president.” In 2001, 66 percent of Americans viewed atheists unfavorably, while 35 percent viewed Muslims this way. Similarly, 69 percent of all Americans said they would be bothered by or could not accept the marriage of a member of their family to an atheist, compared with 45 percent of white Americans who said the same about a family member marrying a black person. Americans seem to agree with the Founding Fathers that their republican government requires a religious base, and hence they find it difficult to accept the explicit rejection of God and religion.
These high levels of religiosity would be less significant if they were the norm for other countries. Americans rank, however, among the most religious people in the world and differ dramatically in their high level of religiosity from the people of other economically developed countries. This religiosity is conclusively revealed in three cross-national surveys. First, in general, the level of religious commitment of countries varies inversely with their level of economic development: people in poor countries are highly religious, those in rich countries are not. America is a glaring exception, as can be seen by Figure 5.1, which compares economic development with the proportion of people saying their religious beliefs are very important to them for fifteen countries at varied levels of economic development. The regression line would lead one to expect that 5 percent of Americans would think religion very important; in fact in this poll, 51 percent do, slightly less than in the previously cited polls.”
Second, an International Social Survey Program survey in 1991 asked people in seventeen countries seven questions concerning their belief in God, life after death, heaven, and other religious concepts. Reporting the results, George Bishop ranked the countries according to the per centage of their population that affirmed these religious beliefs.” The average country rankings are set forth in Table 5.1. The United States was far ahead in its overall level of religiosity, ranking first on four questions, second on one, and third on two, for an average ranking of 1.7. It was followed by Northern Ireland (2.4), where religion is obviously of crucial importance to both Protestants and Catholics, and then by four Catholic countries. After them came New Zealand, Israel, five Western European countries, and four former communist countries, with Fast Germany last, the least religious on six of the seven questions. According to this poll, Americans are more deeply religious than even the people of countries like Ireland and Poland, where religion has been the core of national identity differentiating them from their traditional British, German, and Russian antagonists.
Third, the 1990-1993 World Values Survey asked nine questions concerning religiosity in forty-one countries.” The average responses for individual countries are displayed in Figure 5.2.* Overall these data show the United States to be one of the most religious countries in the world. Apart from the Poles and the Irish, Americans are much more religious than the people of European countries. Most striking is the high religiosity of America in comparison to other Protestant countries. The top fifteen countries in religiosity include Nigeria, India, and Turkey (the only African and predominantly Hindu and Muslim countries in the sample), eight predominantly Catholic countries, one Orthodox country (Romania), sharply divided Northern Ireland, and two predominantly Protestant countries, the United States in fifth place and Canada in fifteenth place. Except for Iceland, all the other predominantly Protestant countries fall well into the lower half of the countries surveyed in terms of their religiosity. America is thus by a large margin the most religious Protestant country. The legacy of its Reformation origins was alive and well at the end of the twentieth century.
Protestant America and Catholicism
For more than two hundred years Americans defined their identity in opposition to Catholicism. The Catholic other was first fought and excluded and then opposed and discriminated against. Eventually, however, American Catholicism assimilated many of the features of its Protestant environment and was, in turn, assimilated into the American mainstream. These processes changed America from a Protestant country into a Christian country with Protestant values.
The initial anti-Catholicism of Americans derived both from their Reformation struggles against Catholicism and from the English view of Catholicism as a major threat during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Britain defined itself largely by the Protestant culture that differentiated it from the French and Spanish. Fears of papist conspiracies and of alleged Catholic sympathies or hidden Catholicism of Stuart monarchs were recurring themes in seventeenth-century England. In the eighteenth century, anti-Catholicism was reinforced by the repeated wars with France. The British were determined to maintain their parity as a Protestant people. In 1609 Parliament “denied naturalization to all non-Protestants.” In 1673 the Test Act excluded Catholics from public office, a ban that remained in effect for the armed services and judiciary until 1793 and for Parliament until 1828. Persecution by continental Catholic regimes led many Protestants to become refugees in Britain in the eighteenth century. In 1740 Parliament limited naturalization in the home country and colonies to Protestants with exemptions for Jews and Quakers but not Catholics.17
British attitudes and actions were replicated in its American colonies. Americans, particularly dissenting Protestants, saw the papacy and Catholicism as the Antichrist. The wars of Britain with France and Spain led the colonists to view the Catholics in their midst as potential traitors. Colonial governments allowed naturalization of Jews but not Catholics, and by 1700, aside from Maryland, “restrictions on Catholic worship were nearly universal in the colonies, remaining relatively light only in Rhode Island and Pennsylvania.” ‘8 Their anti-Catholicism also helped to turn the colonists against the mother country. In 1774 Parliament passed an act decreeing toleration for the Catholic Church in Quebec. The American reaction was intensely critical. Alexander Hamilton denounced it as “popery”; others used more colorful language. In one of its first actions the Continental Congress vigorously protested against this law, which Americans ranked with the tax on tea as a threat to their civil and religious liberty.19
As the Revolution began, Americans denounced George III for his “popery,” and he responded in kind by describing the rebellion as a “Presbyterian war.” For Americans “popist” became a label like “communist” in the twentieth century, often applied to antagonists with little regard for its accuracy. Political considerations, however, soon led to the moderation of anti-Catholic attitudes. Jefferson made only oblique reference to the Quebec Act in the Declaration, since the Americans now hoped to persuade Canadian Catholics to join them in the struggle against the Crown. The alliance with France in 1778 produced a major change in elite, if not popular, opinion, and, despite some intense opposition, the prohibition on religious qualifications for federal office was incorporated into the Constitution. This was followed by the gradual elimination of such restrictions from state constitutions, although well into the nineteenth century, the North Carolina constitution barred from office anyone who denied “the truths of the Protestant religion.””
The anti-Catholic colonial laws severely restricted Catholic organizations and activities and reduced the attractions of America to potential Catholic migrants. The small numbers of Catholics led to high rates of intermarriage, and the proportion of Catholics in the American population may have declined during the eighteenth century. In 1789, about one percent of Americans were Catholic, while one tenth of one percent were Jewish. America was the prototypical Protestant country and was seen as such by both Americans and Europeans. The prevailing attitude was well expressed by Philip Schaff, who, after coming to America in the mid-1840s, concluded that the Protestant sects “have given the country its spirit and character. Its past course and present condition are unquestionably due mainly to the influence of Protestant principles.”
After 1815 accelerating immigration from Ireland and Germany began to moderate America’s exclusively Protestant character. In the 1820s, 62,000 immigrants entered the United States from Ireland and Germany. In the 1840s almost 800,000 arrived from Ireland, and in the 1850s, 952,000 came from Germany and 914,000 from Ireland. Ninety percent of the Irish and a substantial portion of Germans were Catholic. This huge influx rekindled anti-Catholic fears and passions. Americans had defined themselves as an anti-Catholic people, and they were now being invaded by the enemy. This coincided with the Second Great Awakening, and as Perry Miller notes, “fear of Catholicism became a morbid obsession of the Revival.” :z This anti-Catholicism was often formulated in political rather than religious terms. The Catholic Church was seen as an autocratic, anti-democratic organization and Catholics as people accustomed to hierarchy and obedience who lacked the moral character required for citizens of a republic. Catholicism was a threat to American democracy as well as to American Protestantism.
Anti-Catholic actions and movements intensified in the 1830s and 1840s, including the burning of a convent in Charlestown, Massachusetts, in 1834. The immigration explosion of the 1840s led to the formation in 1850 of a secret organization, the Order of the Star-Spangled Banner, which became known as the Know-Nothing movement. In mid-1850s, the Know-Nothings elected six state governors, secured control of nine state legislatures, and had forty-three representatives in Congress. Millard Fillmore, the Know-Nothing presidential candidate in 1856, received 22 percent of the popular vote and eight electoral votes. The intensifying controversy over the extension of slavery, how- ever, displaced immigration as an issue, and the Know-Nothings faded away as a political force. The Civil War marked the end of explicit anti-Catholic political movements, and governmental restrictions on e rights of Catholics had virtually all disappeared by then. For decades, however, anti-Catholic social and political prejudices remained strong in many segments of American society, and in 1898 Americans were urged to go to war to liberate Cuba from “Pope-ridden Spain.””
The fading of overtly anti-Catholic attitudes and activities was paralleled by and directly related to the Americanization of Catholicism. This was a complex and often convoluted process. At one level, it involved the creation of a vast, intricate network of Catholic institutions—churches, seminaries, convents, charities, associations, political clubs, and schools—which, in the short term, provided a community where new immigrants could feel at home and, in the longer term, provided institutional stepping-stones for their movement and, more importantly, the movement of their children into the broader reaches of American society. At another level, it involved the adaptation of Catholicism to its American, that is, Protestant, environment, including changes in Catholic attitudes, practices, organization, and behavior—in effect, the transformation of a Roman Catholic Church into an American Catholic Church.
The pros and cons of “Americanization” were intensely debated within the Catholic hierarchy throughout the nineteenth century. The leading American bishops generally, but not unanimously, made great efforts to reconcile Americanism and Catholicism and to legitimate the Catholic presence in American society in the eyes of Protestant Americans. The Americanists argued, in the words of Archbishop John Ireland, that “There is no conflict between the Catholic Church and America … the principles of the Church are in thorough harmony with the interests of the Republic.” Their opponents saw Americanization as a path of corruption leading to the worst forms of modernism, individualism, materialism, and liberalism. These debates culminated in and came to an end with Pope Leo XVI’s papal letter, Testem Benevolentiae, in January 1899 to Cardinal Gibbons denouncing the false doctrine of “Americanism.” The letter was widely seen as a severe rebuke to Gibbons, Archbishop Ireland, and other “Americanists,” but was also criticized for defining and attacking a set of beliefs no one had.
Some groups, German Catholics in particular, resisted Americanization, and strove to maintain their language, culture, and religion unchanged. Assimilation, however, could not be halted. In due course the “de-Romanization” of the Church occurred as Catholics increasingly thought of themselves less as Roman Catholics and more as American Catholics. By the mid-twentieth century, leaders such as Bishop Fulton J. Sheen and Cardinal Francis Spellman had become fervent American nationalists, and the Irish-American Catholic became the prototype of the patriotic American. Peter Steinfels describes one aspect of this shift:
In three consecutive years, 1943, 1944 and 1945, movies centering on Roman Catholicism—”Song of Bernadette,” “Going My Way,” “The Bells of St. Mary’s” and “The Keys of the Kingdom”—were nomi- nated for 34 Oscars and won 12. The Catholic priest, once a sinister figure in the American imagination, actually became a cinematic model of American manhood. From Spencer Tracy’s Father Flanagan in “Boys Town”; Bing Crosby’s crooning ex-baseball player, Father Chuck O’Malley; Karl Malden’s labor priest in “On the Waterfront”; and assorted roles by Pat O’Brien, there emerged the “superpadre”: virile, wise, good-humored, compassionate and, in emergencies, possessed of a remarkable knockout punch.”
And in 1960 John E Kennedy was elected president.
Catholics are proud of their American identity, the Americanization of their church, and its emergence as a central and influential institution of American society. For understandable reasons, however, they do not like people referring to the “Protestantization” of their religion. Yet in some degree that is precisely what Americanization involves. Given the Protestant origins of America, the overwhelming predominance of Protestantism for over two centuries, the central and pervasive role of Protestant values and assumptions in American culture and society, how could it be otherwise for this later arrival on the American scene? Nor is Protestantization unique to America. As Ronald Inglehart’s careful analysis of data from the World Values Survey shows, Catholics in societies that have historically been shaped by Protestantism—Germany, Switzerland, the Netherlands, and the United States—typically have values more similar to those of their Protestant countrymen than to Catholics in other countries. “Catholics and Protestants within these societies do not show markedly different values: Dutch Catholics today are about as Calvinist as the members of the Dutch Reformed Church.””
In Europe, Protestantism was a revolt against a long-established and universally dominant Catholicism. In America, in contrast, Catholicism, as Schaff put it, came into a Protestant society “as one sect among the others,” “found an adopted home,” and was “everywhere surrounded by purely Protestant institutions.” Lord Baltimore’s early Catholic colony of Maryland “was founded expressly on the thoroughly anti-Roman, and essentially Protestant, principles of religious toleration.” In the early nineteenth century, as Will Herberg remarks, Catholics “established a pattern of church government very much along the lines of the ubiquitous Protestant model.” Known as “lay trusteeism,” this asserted the rights and powers of the laity at the congregational level. This movement was rejected by the first provincial council in Baltimore in 1829 and the authority of the bishops reasserted. It was, however, illustrative of the pressures for the Church to adapt itself to the Protestant ways of America. By the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Dorothy Dohen reports, “Archbishop Ireland and Cardinal Gibbons, in their writings and speeches, urged on the faithful the acceptance of the Protestant ethic (insofar as they stressed, as virtues to be developed, the `American’ traits of sobriety, thrift and initiative).””
One striking dimension of Protestantization was the way in which and the extent to which Catholic prelates reconciled Catholic universalism with American nationalism. Echoing the tones, ideas, and words of evangelical Protestants, they argued divine legitimacy for America’s mission in the world. “We cannot but believe,” Archbishop Ireland said in 1905, “that a singular mission is assigned to America … the mission of bringing about a new social and political order.. . . The Church triumphing in America, Catholic truth will travel on the wings of American influence, and encircle the universe.” In the mid-twentieth century, Bishop Sheen similarly spoke of America as a chosen nation, and Cardinal Spellman, as one scholar said, was “overt in identifying the judgments and action of the American nation with those of God. .. . Cardinal Spellman’s acceptance of the messianic mission of America has been complete.”” “American Catholics,” an observer from Africa noted in the 1990s, “are a nuisance for Rome just because they are … well, so Protestant.” In this respect Catholicism does not differ from Judaism or other religions. “American religion, whatever its formal sectarian designation, is decidedly Protestant.”‘°
A Christian People
Along with their general religiosity, the Christianity of Americans has also impressed foreign observers. “There is no country in the world,” Tocqueville said, “where the Christian religion retains a greater influence over the souls of men than in America…. Christianity, therefore, reigns without obstacle, by universal consent.” Christianity, Bryce similarly observed, is “the national religion” of Americans.” Americans have also affirmed their Christian identity. “We are a Christian people,” the Supreme Court declared in 1811. “We are a Christian people,” the Senate Judiciary Committee said in 1853, “almost our entire population belong to or sympathize with some one of the Christian denominations.” In the midst of the Civil War, Lincoln also described Americans as “a Christian people.” In 1892 the Supreme Court again declared that “This is a Christian nation.” In 1908, a House of Representatives committee said that the United States is “a Christian nation” and that “the best and only reliance for the perpetuation of the republican institution is upon a Christian patriotism.” In 1917 Congress passed legislation declaring a day of prayer in support of the war effort and invoking America’s status as a Christian nation. In 1931 the Supreme Court reaffirmed its earlier view: “We are a Christian people, according to one another the equal right of religious freedom, and acknowledging with reverence the duty of obedience to the will of God.”” Posing the question in 1873, “In what sense can this country then be called a Christian country?” Theodore Dwight Woolsey, former president of Yale, provided an accurate answer. “In this sense certainly, that the vast majority of the people believe in Christianity and the Gospel, that Christian influences are universal, that our civilization and intellectual culture are built on that foundation, and that the institutions are so adjusted as, in the opinion of almost all Christians, to furnish the best hope for spreading and carrying down to posterity our faith and our morality.””
While the balance between Protestants and Catholics shifted over the years, the proportion of Americans identifying themselves as Christian has remained relatively constant. In three surveys between 1989 and 1996, between 84 percent and 88 percent of Americans said they were Christians.” The proportion of Christians in America rivals or exceeds the proportion of Jews in Israel, of Muslims in Egypt, of Hindus in India, and of Orthodox believers in Russia.
America’s Christian identity has, nonetheless, been questioned on two grounds. First, it is argued that America is losing that identity because non-Christian religions are expanding in numbers, and thus Americans are becoming a multireligious and not simply a multidenominational people. Second, it is argued that Americans are losing their religious identity and are becoming secular, atheistic, materialistic, and indifferent to their religious heritage. Neither of these propositions comes close to the truth.
The argument that America is losing its Christian identity due to the spread of non-Christian religions was advanced by several scholars in the 1980s and 1990s. They pointed to the growing numbers of Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus, and Buddhists in American society Adherents of these religions have become more numerous. Hindus in America increased from 70,000 in 1977 to 800,000 in 1997. Muslims amounted to at least 3.5 million in 1997, while Buddhists numbered somewhere between 750,000 and two million. From these developments, the proponents of de-Christianization argue, in the words of Professor Diana Eck, that “religious diversity” has “shattered the paradigm of America” as an overwhelmingly Christian country with a small Jewish minority.” Another scholar suggested that public holidays should be adjusted to accommodate this increasing religious diversity and that, for a start, it would be desirable to “have one Christian holiday (say, Christmas), but replace Easter and Thanksgiving with a Muslim and Jewish holiday.” In some measure, however, the holiday trend was in the opposite direction. Hanukkah, “traditionally a minor Jewish holiday,” has, according to Professor Jeff Spinner, been elevated into the “Jewish Christmas” and displaced Purim as a holiday, so as “to fit in better with the dominant culture.” 36
The increases in the membership of some non-Christian religions have not, to put it mildly, had any significant effect on America’s Christian identity. As a result of assimilation, low birth rates, and intermarriage, the proportion of Jews dropped from 4 percent in the 1920s to 3 percent in the 1950s to slightly over 2 percent in 1997. If the absolute numbers claimed by their spokesmen are correct, by 1997 about 1.5 percent of Americans were Muslim, while Hindus and Buddhists were each less than one percent. The numbers of non-Christian, non-Jewish believers undoubtedly will continue to grow, but for years to come they will remain extremely small. Some increases in the membership in non- Christian religions come from conversions, but the largest share is from immigration and high birth rates. The immigrants of these religions, however, are far outnumbered by the huge numbers of immigrants from Latin America and the Philippines, almost all of whom are Catholic and have high birth rates. Latin American immigrants are also converting to evangelical Protestantism. In addition, Christians in Asia and the Middle East are more likely than non-Christians to migrate to America. As of 1990, a majority of Asian-Americans were Christian rather than Buddhist or Hindu. Among Korean-Americans, Christians outnumber Buddhists by at least ten to one. Roughly one third of Vietnamese immigrants are Catholics. About two thirds of Arab-Americans have been Christian rather than Muslim, although the number of Muslims was growing rapidly before September 11.”
While a precise judgment is impossible, at the start of the twenty-first century the United States was probably becoming more rather than less Christian in its religious composition.
The increases in the small numbers of non-Christians in America unavoidably raise questions concerning their status in a country with an overwhelmingly Christian people and a secular government. These include such practical issues as when Muslim women may wear Muslim headdress and Sikh men their beards and turbans. Americans have generally attempted to tolerate and accommodate the practices of non- Christian groups. America’s Christianity, Protestant values, and constitutional guarantees of freedom of religion mean that non-Christian groups should be and, in general, have been freely allowed to practice and promulgate their beliefs. Americans tend to have a certain catholicity toward religion: all deserve respect. In 1860 Anthony Trollope observed that in America, “Everybody is bound to have a religion, but it does not matter much what it is.” Almost a hundred years later President Eisenhower expressed the same view: “Our government makes no sense unless it is founded on a deeply felt religious faith. And I don’t care what it is.”” Given this general tolerance of religious diversity, non-Christian faiths have little alternative but to recognize and accept America as a Christian society They are tiny minorities among a people overwhelmingly devoted to the Christian God and His Son. “Americans have always thought of themselves as a Christian nation,” Irving Kristol argues, “equally tolerant of all religions so long as they were congruent with traditional Judeo-Christian morality. But equal toleration never meant perfect equality of status in fact.” Christianity is not legally established, “but it is established informally, nevertheless.”” And, Kristol warns his fellow Jews, that is a fact they must accept. Americans are still a Christian people, as they have been throughout their history.
But are they believing and practicing Christians? Has not any earlier religiosity been diluted and even dissolved over time and supplanted by a culture that is pervasively secular and irreligious if not anti-religious? These terms describe segments of American intellectual, academic, and media elites As we have seen, they do not describe the bulk of the American people.° American religiosity could still be high by absolute measures and high relative to that of comparable societies, yet the secularization thesis would still be valid if the commitment of Americans to religion declined over time Little or no evidence exists of such a decline either historically or in the late twentieth century. The one significant shift that does appear to have occurred is a drop in the 1960s and 1970s in the religious commitment of Catholics. An overall fall-off in church attendance in the 1960s was due to a decline in the proportion of Catholics attending mass every Sunday. In 1952, 83 percent of Catholics said that religion was very important in their lives; in 1987, 54 percent of Catholics said this. This shift brought Catholic attitudes on religion more into congruence with those of Protestants.”
In general, few other changes occurred in the religious attitudes and behavior of Americans in the last half of the twentieth century. Ninety-six percent of Americans in 1944 and 98 percent in 1968 said they believed in God, while 96 percent in 1995 said they believed in God or a universal spirit.* The proportion of Americans saying that religion was very important in their lives dropped from 70 percent in 1965 to 52 percent in 1978 and then increased to 61 percent to 65 percent in late 2002. The 1970s decline was, however, primarily among Catholics. In 1940, 37 percent of Americans said they had attended a church or synagogue in the past seven days; in 2002, 43 percent said they had. In 1940, 72 percent of Americans said they were members of a church or synagogue; in 2002, 66 percent said they were, with the decline again concentrated among Catholics in the 1970s. In an exhaustive survey of the polling data, Andrew Greeley concludes, “Only three indicators show a decline—church attendance, financial contributions, and belief in the literal interpretation of the scripture. All three declines are limited to Catholics.” The causes of these Catholic declines probably include the impact of the Second Vatican Council and the unyielding position of the Church on birth control.”
Over the course of American history, fluctuations did occur in levels of American religious commitment and religious involvement. In some measure, these fluctuations were related to the Great Awakenings of the mid-eighteenth century, the early nineteenth century, and late nineteenth–early twentieth centuries. Little or no evidence exists, however, of a downward trend in American religiosity. The multiplication of sects and especially the explosive growth of the Methodists and Baptists in the nineteenth century significantly expanded religious involvement. Between 1775 and 1845, an almost tenfold increase occurred in the American population, while at the same time the number of Christian ministers per capita tripled, from one per fifteen hundred inhabitants to one per five hundred inhabitants. A comparable increase occurred in the number of congregations, and according to another careful study of census and denominational membership data, the percentage of Americans who were formal members of a church increased from 17 percent in 1776 to 37 percent in 1860 and then rose steadily in the twentieth century to 62 percent in 1980.” At the start of the twenty-first century, Americans were no less committed and quite possibly were more committed to their Christian identity than at any time in their history.
“In the United States,” Tocqueville said, “religion … is mingled with all the habits of the nation and all the feelings of patriotism, whence it derives a peculiar force.” The mingling of religion and patriotism is evident in America’s civil religion. Writing in the 1960s, Robert Bellah defined civil religion, “at its best” as a “genuine apprehension of universal and transcendent religious reality as seen in or, one could almost say, as revealed through the experience of the American people.” Civil religion enables Americans to bring together their secular politics and their religious society, to many God and country, so as to give religious sanctity to their patriotism and nationalist legitimacy to their religious beliefs, and thus to merge what could be conflicting loyalties into loyalty to a religiously endowed country.
America’s civil religion provides a religious blessing to what Americans feel they have in common. It is perfectly compatible with each American belonging to his or her own denomination, believing in a ,Christian or non-Christian god, or being Deist, as were several of the Founding Fathers. It is not compatible, however, with being atheist, for it is a religion, invoicing a transcendental Being apart from the terrestrial “Inman world.
The American civil religion encompasses four major elements.
First, central to it is the proposition that the American system of government rests on a religious base. It presupposes a Supreme Being. The views of the framers of the Constitution that the republican government they were creating could survive only among a people imbued with religion and morality have been endorsed and repeated by subsequent generations of American leaders. Our institutions “presuppose a Supreme Being,” as Justice William 0. Douglas put it, and President Eisenhower similarly declared that “Recognition of the Supreme Being is the first, the most basic expression of Americanism. Without God there could be no American form of government, nor an American way of life.”‘” To deny God is to challenge the fundamental principle underlying American society and government.
A second core element of the civil religion is the belief that Americans are God’s “chosen,” or, in Lincoln’s phrase, “almost chosen” people, that America is the “new Israel,” with a divinely sanctioned mission to do good in the world. The core of the civil religion, as Conrad Cherry has said, is “the sense of America’s special destiny under God.” 46 Two of the three Latin phrases the Founding Fathers chose for the republic they were creating sum up this sense of mission: Annuit Coeptis (God smiles on our undertakings), and Novus Ordo Seclorum (New order for the ages).*
A third element of America’s civil religion is the prevalence of religious allusions and symbols in American public rhetoric, rituals, and ceremonies. Presidents have always taken their oath of office on a Bible and, with other officials, formally assume their offices when, at the conclusion of their oaths, they utter the words, “So help me God.” Except. for Washington in his two-paragraph second inaugural remarks, all presidents have invoked God in their inaugural addresses and in most other major addresses as well. The speeches of some presidents, most’ notably Lincoln, are filled with religious resonance and biblical references. Eight words, and only eight words, appear on every pi of American currency, bills and coins: “United States of America” an “In God We Trust.” Americans pledge allegiance to “one Nation and God.” Major public ceremonies begin with an invocation by a clergyman from one denomination and end with a benediction by a clergyman of a different denomination. The military services have a substantial corps of chaplains, and the daily sessions of Congress open with prayer.
Fourth, national ceremonies and activities themselves take on a religious aura and perform religious functions. Historically, as Lloyd Warner argues, celebration of Memorial Day was “an American sacred ceremony.”” So also is the celebration of Thanksgiving, as well as presidential inaugurations and funerals. The Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, the Gettysburg Address, Lincoln’s second inaugural, Kennedy’s inaugural, Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech have all become sacred texts defining America’s identity.
The marriage of religion and politics in America’s civil religion is well caught in Peter Steinfels’s account of the inauguration of Bill Clinton in 1993:
“At its core was the solemn administration of an oath on the Bible, preceded and followed by prayers and accompanied by hymns as well as patriotic music… .The week was rich with religious gestures alongside moments when the religious overtones, though not explicit, were unmistakable. The inaugural week officially began with a nationwide ringing of church bells. At Howard University, Bill Clinton invoked the memory of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., echoing his lessons and quoting the verse from Scripture that would also close the Inaugural Address…. The President was surrounded throughout the day by an array of religious leaders.”
This was not the ceremony of a secular, much less atheistic, society or Ow. As the British scholar D. W. Brogan pointed out, in the past Olen children recited daily the “American’s Creed”* in schools, they performed a religious exercise as truly as if they began their day by saying, “I believe in God the Father Almighty” or “There is no God but God.” Civil religion converts Americans from religious people of many denominations into a nation with the soul of a church.
But, apart from its being American, what is that church? It is a church that has included Protestants, Catholics, Jews, other non-Christians, and even agnostics. It is, however, a church that is profoundly Christian in its origins, symbolism, spirit, accoutrements, and, most importantly, its basic assumptions about the nature of man, history, right and wrong. The Christian Bible, Christian references, biblical allusions and metaphors, permeate expressions of the civil religion. “Behind the civil religion at every point lie Biblical archetypes,” Bellah has said: “Exodus, Chosen People, Promised Land, New Jerusalem, Sacrificial Death and Rebirth.” Washington becomes Moses, Lincoln becomes Christ. “The deepest source of the symbols, beliefs and rituals of the [civil] religion,” Conrad Cherry agrees, “lies in the Old and New Testaments.” 5° America’s civil religion is a nondenominational, national religion and, in its articulated form, not expressly a Christian religion. Yet it is thoroughly Christian in its origins, content, assumptions, and tone. The God in whom their currency says Americans trust is implicitly the Christian God.
Two words, nonetheless, do not appear in civil religion statements and ceremonies. They are “Jesus Christ.” While the American Creed is Protestantism without God, the American civil religion is Christianity without Christ.