The basic truth is that America, like Iraq, is a religious country. The fact that Americans haven’t been killing each other over religion doesn’t negate that fact. Every American president has been Christian—some arguably less than others. The Supreme Court and Congress open every session with a prayer. Oaths from the Pledge of Allegiance to the presidential oath of office include phrases such as “under God” and “so help me God.” Presidential candidates and legislators of all stripes try to make prominent speeches in churches. By all measures, we should be a theocracy.
But we’re not. The United States of America is a country that likes God—but at a comfy distance. A recent Newsweek poll suggests that 91 percent of Americans believe in God. The poll also finds that 82 percent of the population identifies itself as Christian, only four percent more than the CIA’s estimation of 78 percent. However despite weighty numbers, a 2006 Pew poll shows only a relatively paltry 40 percent attend religious services on a weekly basis. Most Americans want their president to believe in God but few want governance based upon Holy Scripture. Americans like religion on their own terms. This isn’t that surprising. After all, the original American colonies were founded by religious zealots who didn’t like governments telling them what to believe. For better or worse, this has never quite left our cultural DNA.
Slaveholders and abolitionists both used Christianity to promote their cause. The Civil Rights movement that was incubated in black churches in the South used the same Christian texts as Senator Robert Byrd, who opposed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 because of the “Curse of Ham.” The same creator who gave us “inalienable rights” has yet to extend those rights to same-sex marriages. Historically as Americans, we have used religion to comfort many in the midst of tragedy at certain times, and to cause tragedy for some at other times. Assigning blame or praise to religion for what we have done is as flawed as thinking that as an atheist country we would never have had slavery or never have had the Civil Rights Movement. The faith that most Americans have doesn’t necessarily make them better or worse people, only people who can sleep better at night.
Although our vices and virtues seem to be independent of religion, there is no dividing Americana from religion. The two are interwoven. Removing the churches from the Boston skyline would be equivalent to creating a New York without skyscrapers. Forgetting Southern gospel songs would be as much a blow to our culture as if we turned our back on jazz and rock ’n’ roll. Cherishing our freedom to hold any or no religion is as important as practicing our freedom of speech. Our history with religion might be filled with bumps and wrong turns but so is our history as a people.
Religious discourse should always remain as a part of our national discourse. Those who want to remove faith from discussion are as flawed in thinking as those who want to replace discussion with faith. As the next presidential election approaches, religion will be a central issue in terms of abortion, stem cells, Mormonism, gay rights, and numerous other issues. God matters now and will matter in the future because of who we are, and because we need all the help we can get.
Steven T. Cupps ’09 is a biological anthropology concentrator in Lowell House. His column appears regularly.