2017 Pew data reminds us why ‘Christian Nation’ meme survives

2017 Pew data reminds us why ‘Christian Nation’ meme survives November 7, 2019

Not to belabor the obvious, but, rationally speaking, the United States is not a Christian nation.

christian nation controversy america pew
Grant Woods’ iconic 1930 painting “American Gothic,” with church-style window in farmhouse in background. (Andrew Comings, Flikr, CC BY 2.0)

Ours is a nation encompassing many different religions, and the Constitution explicitly demands that all religions be respected and none be in control of, or controlled by, government.

But, of course, Americans have their own ideas, often unmoored by facts or the clear intentions of the nation’s Enlightenment-influenced founders, who envisioned a people governed equally and rationally under a secular republic, not a theocracy.

Yesterday, I learned that this traditional American perversity — a widespread but faux bias that we are, in fact, a “Christian Nation” — is worse than I thought.

I learned this in a 2017 article in the British news website Church and State, an initiative of the nonprofit Network for Church Monitoring (N4CM), titled “Study: Third of U.S. Says Being Christian Important to Being ‘Truly American.’”

Even though the article referenced a study by the Pew Research Center, a respected company whose data I often refer to myself, I hadn’t been aware of this jarring report when it came out a couple of years ago.

The Pew study found that 32 percent of Americans then stressed the importance of Christianity to the nation’s overall identity. Of those who said religion was important to them personally, 51 percent believed the faith was crucial to their sense of being an American.

Still, there was a fair amount of divergence.

“The public is divided over whether one has to be Christian in order to be considered American, with roughly a third saying it is very important and another third saying it is not at all important,” Pew said its research showed.

Responses in the survey cleaved along generational, political and gender divides. For example, Church and State reported, the Pew survey showed 43 percent of Republicans giving great weight to Americans being Christian, whereas only 29 percent of Democrats did. Also, Americans older than 50 were more likely to share that dominant GOP view compared to citizens 35 and under.

For me, the main takeaway from these findings, assuming that probably not much has changed from two years ago because attitudes of committed Christians have not much changed, is that this “Christian Nation” meme will not soon dissipate and will continue to distort American politics.

Indeed, in the past month alone, we’ve seen signs it is emboldening believers, particularly in government and among those who try to manipulate society along evangelical lines. In October, Attorney General William Barr and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, a devout Catholic and an evangelical Christian, respectively, gave public speeches in their official capacities to extoll the virtues of their faiths.

So, this fervent idea that the Christian God smiles directly on America is becoming more and more politically and culturally pernicious, as top government officials routinely sermonize in their official capacities and Christianity is insinuated into schools in the form of extracurricular Bible-study clubs, etc. Note that students in those clubs — most commonly the national evangelical Good News Clubs — use members to proselytize to and recruit other students during and after school hours.

The discriminatory implications are clear of this kind of sectarian thinking and activism in America, certainly among atheists, agnostics and other nonreligious or religiously apathetic “nones,” but also among non-Christian religions.

Ibrahim Hooper, communications director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations Communications Director Ibrahim Hooper, said American Muslims face “an increasingly negative perception” in the current U.S. political milieu. Although the Pew study’s results were unsurprising to him, Hooper told Church and State that the reality is the U.S. is “a religiously diverse nation of many faiths. To be truly American, he said, Americans “should be accepting of all faiths.”

To put American exceptionalist Christian views in context, the Pew report noted that only 7 percent of Swedish citizens, 10 percent of French respondents and 15 percent of Canadians stressed that being Christian was an important part of their nationality. For Greeks, though, the proportion was 54 percent.

Particularly concerning in the current nationalism-nativism-white supremacism-infused moment in American history, the Pew study also indicated that the same proportion of respondents who believed in the critical importance of Christianity in U.S. identity also believed being native-born was “truly important” to that national sense of identity.

The sense of the importance of being native-born was most pronounced among older Americans with a high-school diploma or less education, Pew reported.

Let’s continue to hope, religion-wise, that how the young go now, the nation will trend in the future.

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