Chances are your mama, like mine, advised not talking about politics, religion, or sex in polite conversation. My mama told me I could never go wrong by keeping my thoughts on those topics to myself. It has been like skiing uphill.
I have long since violated her admonition regarding politics, both in many a conversation and in print on this very page. Now I am tackling religion with the expectation that not everyone wants to hear “just the facts, ma’am,” but here goes.
The secularization of western society that began in our peer European nations in the 19th century seems to have arrived and accelerated in the United States. The Gallup organization reports that church, synagogue, or mosque membership was at 73% when it was first measured in 1937 and held fairly steady until the late 1990s when it took a nosedive. By 2020, Gallup found that less than half of us, 47%, reported organized religious membership. The Wall Street Journal and researchers at the University of Chicago recently found that while 62% of Americans said religion was very important to them in 1998, only 39% agreed with that in 2023.
All of that said, many Americans still hold religious beliefs and pray regularly even though we may not belong to a house of worship. Mark Chaves, a Duke Divinity School professor put it this way, “The decline in religious belief and interest is much slower than the decline in organizational participation.” University of Chicago research finds a small percentage of people, 7%, who identify as atheists
The founders of our United States were largely Protestants from the Church of England, itself established for a decidedly secular reason. King Henry VIII wanted a divorce so he could marry his girlfriend. Whatever their religious backgrounds, our founders were so adamant that government and religion be separate matters that they wrote separation of church and state into our Constitution. The words “under God” were not added to our pledge of allegiance until 1954, and it has been the subject of many lawsuits over the years.
That separation has been a tough standard from our beginning.
Americans of all sorts have used religion to articulate their own beliefs on all sorts of political, social, and cultural issues, including alcohol and drugs, slavery, abortion, civil rights, women’s rights, gay rights, immigration, race, and the list goes on and on. We invoke religion to justify why we support laws and governmental policies that discriminate against people who are different from us, people we perceive as “other” in some way. This is not new, and pundits describe the current outbreaks of religious justification of all manner of discrimination as “culture wars.”
Thomas Jefferson, a Christian, contributed enormously to the framework of our nation, and he put it this way. “I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should ‘make no law respecting the establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between Church and State.”
In other words, each of us is free to practice any religion we choose and are free to choose none at all. What we are not free to do is use the power of government to impose our religious beliefs on our fellow Americans.
And, not to worry. I will not be sharing my thoughts on sex any time soon.