The majority of Americans may not know much about their own religions, but they seem to have a pretty good handle on the intricacies of secularization theory. That, at least, was what I got from looking at the findings of two surveys published this fall.
The first you may be familiar with: in September, the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life gave us a dismal picture of American religious illiteracy. Among the more embarrassing discoveries were that only half of American Protestants were able to identify Martin Luther and 45% percent of Catholics were not aware that, according to their Church’s doctrine, they were ingesting the actual body and blood of Christ when taking the Eucharist. Less than one third knew that public school teachers could read from the Bible as an example of literature. The results were great fodder for PBS, which planned their miniseries “God in America” to air on the heels of Pew’s revelations. (Ask Vincent Pecora how that teachable moment went.)
The second poll, conducted by the First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University, was released just a few days before the Pew survey, and it went largely unnoticed. I came across it only this past Sunday in an article by John Schwartz in The New York Times. Schwartz points to two findings as further confirmation that, when it comes to the relationship between religion and politics, Americans are shockingly ignorant of their own history:
On the question of church-state separation, at least, a majority of Americans do seem to get the gist: The First Amendment Center poll showed that 66 percent of Americans agree with the statement that the First Amendment requires it [. . . .] Oddly enough, however, the poll also showed that 53 percent of Americans agree with this statement: the Constitution ‘establishes a Christian nation.’
Hmm. This is the sort of thing that leads the nation’s constitutional scholars to cite a venerable jurisprudential doctrine: go figure.
Actually, a sounder reading of these results would suggest that most Americans see the separation of church and state itself as the mark of a “Christian” nation. Of course, we can’t know how many respondents might specifically endorse this line of reasoning. But the numbers indicate a surprising alignment between popular opinion and recent scholarly thinking. As readers of this blog are well aware, a growing number of social scientists, philosophers, and historians are prepared to see the “secular” as a particularly western category and understand secularization as an outgrowth of trends immanent to Christian religious history. Of course, the percentage of academics who smell trouble in this whiff of Christianity coming over Jefferson’s “wall of separation” is probably well above the national average. One gets the sense that the majority of those who declared America a “Christian nation” did so proudly. But at a certain level, that’s beside the point: these two usually opposed demographics broadly share a diagnosis of the kind of nation they live in. The First Amendment Center poll may show that, beneath Americans’ ignorance of the basic tenets of Christianity and other world faiths is a stronger grasp of the more general (and arguably more important) dynamics of the cultural and political traditions they’ve inherited.