Religion Remains Essential to American People and to American Public Life

Rob Schwarzwalder is Senior Vice President at Family Research Council. This article appeared in Christian Headlines on November 18, 2014.

In an average week, one-in-five Americans share their religious faith online, about the same percentage that tune in to religious talk radio, watch religious TV programs or listen to Christian rock music. And nearly half of U.S. adults see someone else share their religious faith online in a typical week.”

That’s the opening paragraph of a new Pew Research report titled, “Religion and Electronic Media.”  The study documents that “Fully 20 percent of Americans said they had shared their religious faith on social networking websites or apps (such as Facebook and Twitter) in the past week, and 46 percent said they had seen someone else share ‘something about their religious faith’ online.”
This makes a subtle but unmistakable point that religious faith is vitally important to the American people. 
People share their faith online for one reason: It matters to them.  Their faith is more than just a one-hour-per-week, Sunday morning event.
This does not mean that everyone’s faith is of equal depth or grounded in the same belief-system.  Rather, it means that for about 65 million Americans, what they believe concerning God, prayer, their holy books, etc. is so informative of the way they lead their lives that they want to talk about it publicly.
Perhaps as telling is that about half of all Americans regularly read what their peers write about faith – and they don’t become apoplectic about it.  They recognize that for tens of millions of their fellow citizens, religious belief is essential, and are unbothered not just by that fact but also by the reality that religious people want to talk about something so meaningful to their lives: Their faith.
In a recent exhibition on “America as a Religious Refuge,” the Library of Congress noted that “many of the colonies that in 1776 became the United States of America were settled by men and women of deep religious convictions who in the seventeenth century crossed the Atlantic Ocean to practice their faith freely.” The text of the exhibit continues:
The result was that a religious people rose in rebellion against Great Britain in 1776, and that most American statesmen, when they began to form new governments at the state and national levels, shared the convictions of most of their constituents that religion was, to quote Alexis de Tocqueville's observation, indispensable to the maintenance of republican institutions.
Religion remains central to the life of the nation today.  In a recent massive study of religious allegiance in the U.S., the Association of Religious Data Archives notes that “The 236 groups (surveyed) reported a total of 344,894 congregations with 150,686,156 adherents, comprising 48.8 percent of the total U.S. population of 308,745,538 in 2010.”
Yet even this doesn’t paint the full picture: According to another Pew report, nearly 80 percent of Americans identify as some type of Christian and roughly two percent report a commitment Judaism. Another three percent report themselves as Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus and other adherents of other faiths.
Increasing numbers of commentators want to diminish the role of religion in American life with respect both to personal faith and religion in public life.  Yet as Oxford University professor Roger Trigg writes in his 2007 book, Religion in Public Life: Must Faith Be Privatized?
As a matter of historical fact, the standards of Western society have arisen from a Christian background.  For those who have been brought up in societies which have been traditionally Christian, the temptation may sometimes be to espouse the assumptions of their society about individual freedom, and equality, and the importance of toleration, whilst regarding Christianity itself as totally dispensable.  The idea may be that such religious belief is a private matter, and has nothing to do with the public standards of a society.  Yet the urge to respect different beliefs, and value individual freedom, needs to be nurtured publicly, and if religious views initially produced it, there is a question how long it can survive without their explicit support.
Facebook, blogs, Twitter accounts, and emails are full of personal stories about and references to the faith of ordinary people who value their religions for a host of reasons.  Not only does this demonstrate the enduring power of personal faith to the American story, but must compel us to ask if it is in any way fair to ask these same people to divorce their religious convictions from their public actions and political priorities.  A fair answer would be no.
Religion – most particularly, the Christian faith of our founding - remains important to Americans and to America. In light of which truths, Dr. Trigg’s question should challenge, if not haunt, everyone concerned with the future of our country.  To diminish or outright spurn the heritage from which those things we claim to cherish, namely liberty, justice and human dignity, arise is to risk losing both that heritage and the blessings of it we enjoy.