A recently released study from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, contrary to the analysis offerred by some observers, should give Americans renewed comfort in the founding concept that has, probably more than any other single element, fostered American exceptionalism among the nations. This concept, based on the dual U. S. Constitutional guarantees of anti-religious establishment along with the free exercise thereof, has produced a healthy free market dynamism of religious tolerance and practice that is unique in world history.
According to the study, 60% of Americans consider religion “very important”, compared to 12% for the French, for example, and 84% of Americans claim one of a broad range of religious institutional affiliations. So what of its finding that 44% of American adults have switched religious affiliations at some point in their lives? Although this might smack of “cafeteria-style” religion to suit a lifestyle without doctrinal commitment, it seems attractively dynamic to me and describes the competitive religious marketplace free of coercion which the founders envisioned, except that they no doubt could not have forseen the amazing number of choices that would be available. One more thing that is distinctive about America that has produced a “public” religion is the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence, which begins “We hold these truths to be self-evident………………….”. This is the real source of American genius and exceptionalism, however it is practiced.
On the other hand, among many in our establishment elite, this element of exceptionalism is not necessarily an asset or a characteristic to be praised, and this view is particulary evident among our foreign policy officials. Writes Angelo Codevilla in the Claremont Review, “Having concluded that mankind is outgrowing religion, our experts react to religion’s presence in the Islamic world–and in America–by inventing the distinction between “moderate” religion, acceptable because not taken seriously, and “fundamentalism”, i. e., actually believing in God and His commandments.” This view inevitably leads to the conclusion that religion is the mother of all strife and the enemy of all progress in world affairs, and precludes an intelligent and honest discussion about why certain religious beliefs and expressions are preferable to others. Unfortunately, this growing attitude among our elite that the prominence of religious faith in the public square is an American anachronism which the rest of the West has moved “beyond” is destructive to the very genius that underpins our exceptionalism, as well as a significant foundation of our moral authority.