Thursday, April 24, 2008

Why Are Americans So Religious?

America is not only the most spiritually diverse nation on earth; it is also one of the most intensely religious, with a high percentage of the population claiming membership in churches, synagogues and other places of worship. Why is this so?

In an interview leading up to Pope Benedict's visit last week, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the Vatican secretary of state, said that "religion is deeply rooted in American life despite the separation of church and state."

But in fact, the exact opposite is true. Religion is so rooted in American life because of the separation of church and state. That's the way the Founders planned it. Keep government out of church affairs, they reasoned, and faith would flourish. An official hands-off policy toward religion would unleash people's latent spiritual energies, just as a laissez-faire policy toward the economy would unlock the engine of private enterprise.

Ben Franklin made the connection explicit. If businesses thrive in a climate of competition, he wondered, why wouldn't churches do the same?

Perhaps Cardinal Bertone should have read Alexis de Tocqueville. Coming to America in the 1830's from France (officially Catholic in faith), the author of Democracy in America noticed immediately the vibrant religious atmosphere of the United States and inquired why people in the New World were so pious. "To find this out, I questioned the faithful of all communions," he recorded.

"I particularly sought the society of clergymen, who are the depositories of the various creeds and have a personal interest in their survival. As a practicing Catholic I was particularly close to the Catholic priests, with some of whom I soon established a certain intimacy. I expressed my astonishment and revealed my doubts to each of them; I found that they all agreed with each other except about details; all thought that the main reason for the quiet sway of religion over their country was the complete separation of church and state."

Maintaining the separation of church and state is key to preserving the Founder's legacy and insuring that America remains a nation whose faith is powerful, varied and free.