Gary Wills thinks that our ignorance-and the ignorance of liberals and intellectuals-about American religion reflects a deeper blindness about America. In Under God, he's blunt about his views:

"The learned have their superstitions, prominent among them a belief that superstition is evaporating. . . . Every time religiosity catches the attention of intellectuals, it is as if a shooting star has appeared in the sky. One could hardly guess, from this, that nothing has been more stable in our history, nothing less budgeable, than religious belief and practice."

The charge has a decided edge to it, but if you look at nearly a half century of polling data about Americans and religion, it's not hard to see why Wills feels the way he does. According to Gallup, for example

  • Nine out of ten Americans say they've never doubted the existence of God
  • Eight out of ten Americans believe they'll be called before God on Judgment Day to answer for their sins
  • Seven in ten say they are current church, synagogue, or mosque members;
  • Four in ten say they worship at least weekly (six in ten say at least monthly) as members of a religious congregation.
  • All this cuts against the confident belief once held that religion, whatever its past history, was in terminal decline-thanks to the "secularizing" forces of urbanization, industrialization, scientific explanation, and consumer culture. In Britain, France, and Germany, for example, barely more than a tenth of citizens say they worship weekly, with those who say they believe in God hovering between a quarter and third-both small fractions of the comparable U.S. figures.

    Teasing out-and debating-the reasons for this "American exceptionalism" is a cottage industry among social scientists who study religion. What's perhaps more important on the eve of a new century is the simple fact of American religion's durability-and its implications for progressive politics in the decades ahead.

    The first overwhelming fact about American religion is this: nearly 60 percent of Americans identify themselves as Protestants, 25 percent as Catholic, 2 percent each as Jews or Mormons, about 1 percent as Orthodox Christians, another 1 or 2 percent as "other religions" (mostly Muslim, Buddhist, or Hindu). Barely a tenth of Americans say they have no religious identity.At first glance, of course, those numbers alone make America an overwhelmingly "Christian" country-more Christian, in fact, than India is Hindu, Israel is Jewish, or Latin America is Catholic. That 85 percent "Christian majority," however, is-and always has been-deeply and fractiously divided. For example, between 1,200 and 1,500 different denominations parse Protestantism's 150 million members into often wafer-thin subgroupings.

    As a consequence, more relevant dividing lines turn on denominational identity and their rough "family" location. Another way to look at that immense Christian bloc, for example, is this: about a quarter of Ameri cans are Catholic, a quarter mainline Protestant, a quarter Fundamentalist Protestant, and a tenth black Protestants.

    The lines between those "family" groupings aren't just ceremonial or superficial. To the contrary, they're powerful and real-and have long influenced not just religious boundaries but political and social beliefs. Catholics, for example, from their initial large-scale migration in the 1830s right up to the 1960s, found themselves isolated in a sea of Protestant ire and suspicion that imparted a distinctive pattern to their political allegiances. Protestant Fundamentalists, meanwhile, heavily concentrated in the South, placed themselves at odds with their northern and midwestern brethren even before the Civil War, not only over slavery but intractable issues involving the inerrancy of the Bible-and later the role of science.

    Black Protestants-black Americans were, and are, overwhelmingly Protestant-when faced with the nation's enduring racism and religious isolation, constructed their own distinctive faith culture and denominations, blending the spiritualism and directness of the Fundamentalists with the more liberal social and political attitudes of the Mainliners' leadership. And no American Jew doubts the important divides among the Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox, or the echoes even today of once-powerful divisions between German and East European immigrant traditions.

    Despite all our talk about "postmodernism," at the end of the twentieth century those old divisions still carry measurable effects. For example, Catholics are second only to Jews as a group in deeply distrusting both TV evangelists and the Christian right-two groups in turn almost uniformly drawn from the ranks of Protestant Fundamentalists. Even among the Protestant majority, there are sharp differences: Mainliners as a group are much less likely to watch TV evangelists or support the Christian right than are Fundamentalists.


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