Religion and Democracy in the United States: Danger or Opportunity?

By Alan Wolfe; Ira Katznelson | Go to book overview
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Chapter 4



By all measures the United States is among the most religiously intense and diverse nations in the world. Our daily newspapers regularly chronicle the disastrous consequences of religious intensity and diversity across the globe. Although the United States has not been free from religious bigotry, hatred, and even violence, overall it has an enviable record for both religious freedom and peace. Mark Lilla, in a New York Times Magazine article, describes the American success as “a miracle”:

As for the American experience, it is utterly exceptional: there is no
other fully developed industrial society with a population so com-
mitted to its faiths (and such exotic ones), while being equally com-
mitted to the Great Separation. Our political rhetoric, which owes
much to the Protestant sectarians of the 17th century, vibrates with
messianic energy, and it is only thanks to a strong constitutional
structure and various lucky breaks that political theology has never
seriously challenged the basic legitimacy of our institutions. Ameri-
cans have potentially explosive religious differences over abortion,
prayer in schools, censorship, euthanasia, biological research and
countless other issues, yet they generally settle them within the
bounds of the Constitution. It’s a miracle.1

The American experience is indeed exceptional, but it is not miraculous. The United States is blessed with both a religious and a governmental pluralism that have established the conditions for our relative success in a world tormented by religious conflict. Journalist Thomas Friedman recently expressed the situation with characteristic sharpness:

The world is drifting dangerously toward a widespread religious and
sectarian cleavage—the likes of which we have not seen for a long,
long time. The only country with the power to stem this toxic trend
is America. People across the world shall look to our example of
pluralism, which is like no other.2


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