Our State of Disgrace

By Miller, Lisa | Newsweek, September 27, 2010 | Go to article overview

Our State of Disgrace


Miller, Lisa, Newsweek


Byline: Lisa Miller

A new religion book and the mosque.

While researching their forthcoming book about American religion, the Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam and his colleagues polled on this hypothetical question: Say a group of Buddhists wanted to build a large temple in your community. How would you feel? Putnam & Co. asked about Buddhists because, they had discovered, Buddhists are one of the least popular religious groups in the country. People like Buddhists less than they do atheists and Mormons--and only slightly more than they do Muslims. Like Muslims, Buddhists "do not have a place in what has come to be called America's Judeo-Christian framework," Putnam and his coauthor, David Campbell, write in American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us. The book comes out next week.

What they found was, in light of the recent controversy over the proposed community center and mosque near Ground Zero, disturbing but not surprising. Three quarters of Americans said they would support a large Buddhist temple in their community, but only 15 percent would explicitly welcome one. Americans, in other words, supported the idea of a temple but weren't so crazy about the bricks-and-mortar aspect of things.

Three years ago, when they asked the question, the authors of American Grace could not have known how pres-cient they would seem. Polling last week from Quinnipiac University revealed exactly the same paradox. Seventy percent of Americans support the rights of Muslims to build the mosque, but 63 percent believe it would be inappropriate to actually build it. The polls give Muslims the same rights in principle as everyone else, but they show a basic mistrust of Islam and so corroborate Putnam's conclusion that Muslims, like Buddhists, are not yet part of "America's Judeo-Christian framework." "It really is a question of whether Islam can be seen as a fundamentally moderate faith, within the range of faiths that are part of American civil religion," explains Wilfred McClay, a historian at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. "Or is it a permanent outlier?"

The story of American religion has always been marked by this fragile tension. On the one hand, we value tolerance and pluralism above all, and we will fight for our neighbors' right to practice as they please. …

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