Faith in America
It's as important as ever, no matter what you believe
The changing complexion of American religion already has worked its way into the public discourse. From President Bush on down, elected officials accustomed to lauding America's churches and synagogues now routinely include "mosques." At the White House and in some governors' mansions, ceremonies honoring Islam's holy month of Ramadan are increasingly commonplace. And Muslim and Hindu clerics have joined ministers, priests, and rabbis in offering opening prayers at legislative sessions and city council meetings--although not always without controversy.
Still, despite sporadic assaults directed at religious minorities, experts say extreme xenophobia is generally rare and mild in comparison with the violence common in some parts of the world. Indeed, the U.S. News/PBS survey--conducted last month by Mitofsky International and Edison Media Research--found a high degree of acceptance toward people of different faiths. More than three fourths of Americans call the nation's religious diversity a source of strength; fewer than a third think it makes it harder to keep the country united. (There is, however, a new suspicion of Islam: 37 percent say they have an unfavorable view of that religion, while nearly 40 percent think Islam harbors more violent extremists than do other religions.)
Tolerance. Meanwhile, more than 3 in 4 Americans believe all religions have at least some elements of truth--even though few say they know much about religions other than their own. And nearly 70 percent think spiritual experiences are the most important part of religion. "If one's religion is more about individual identity than doctrine or creed, it's a lot easier to be tolerant," says Egon Mayer, a sociologist at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. Gallup says that the high degree of religious tolerance reflects, in part, "not only a lack of knowledge of other religions but an ignorance of one's own faith." In some polls, he says, "you have Christians saying, `Yes, Jesus is the only way' and also, `Yes, there are many paths to God.' It's not that Americans don't believe anything; they believe everything."
In some denominations, the growing diversity already has spawned internal debate over basic doctrines. Recently, both Roman Catholics and Presbyterians have wrestled publicly with the question: Is Jesus--and Christianity--the only way of salvation? The Vatican reprimanded a Belgian theologian last year for suggesting in a book on religious pluralism that salvation might be achieved other than through the Catholic Church. And after a passionate debate, leaders of the 2.5 million-member Presbyterian Church (USA) rejected a statement declaring "Jesus is the only savior and Lord" and affirmed instead that "for us, the assurance of salvation is found only in confessing Christ and trusting him alone."
The growing diversity also has raised pressure on some groups to halt aggressive proselytizing. Southern Baptists, for example, have been widely criticized in recent years for targeting Hindus, Jews, and others for conversion during those religions' holy days. "That doesn't sit well with many people who want to celebrate American religious freedom," says Laderman of Emory University. In the U.S. News/PBS poll, 71 percent, including 70 percent of Christians, say Christians should be tolerant of people of other faiths and leave them alone. Just 22 percent (24 percent of Christians) think it's a Christian's duty to convert members of other faiths. "I certainly believe we ought to be tolerant in terms of respecting other people's faiths," says James Merritt, president of the 15.9 million-member Southern Baptist Convention. But for a Christian, he says, proselytizing "is not an option. I'm as obligated to share my faith in Christ as I am to pay taxes. All we ask is that you be tolerant of our right and responsibility to share what we believe to be the real truth of salvation."