Religious Claims in the Public Sphere

Some Americans believe that being a good American means being religious; some believe you have to be Christian to be a good American, which is not a term they understand to encompass the broad array of Christian denominations but to denote a particular kind of contemporary evangelical Protestantism. The Americans who believe that are also likely to support prayer in public schools and prefer political leaders who are religious or who publicly defend and promote specific religious commitments.

In new research using data from the American Mosaic Project, Evan Stewart, Jack Delehanty and I show that attitudes toward public religious expression predict both general intolerance and prejudice toward specific religious minorities.

We find that Americans who understand a particular kind of (white, Protestant, evangelical) Christianity as essential for good citizenship, who want political leaders who share and defend their faith, and who are comfortable with religious discourse in the public realm are more likely to be generally intolerant, and to be prejudiced toward specific religious minority groups.  Our research found prejudice toward a wide range of groups, including atheists, the spiritual-but-not-religious, Jews, Mormons, Buddhists, and Muslims. 

We did not find the same relationship between private religiosity -- one's own religious faith or identity -- and prejudice/intolerance.  This  makes sense -- as Jacqui Frost and I have argued elsewhere, religious identities do not automatically lead to a particular stand on a social or political issue.  Rather, social location interacts with religiosity to shape the links that people forge between particular faith identities or religious beliefs and how they view those from different backgrounds and how they think about social policy (our research focused on attitudes toward racial others and racial inequality).

There has been a meta-narrative in mainstream social science -- especially political science and sociology -- about increasing religious pluralism and tolerance in American life.  And those who favor a revival of civil religion, and who hold out hope that such a revival could ameliorate the political and cultural divisions that plague us, often draw on this meta-narrative.  That is, normative claims about civil religion fostering inclusion, like those developed by Phil Gorski, often depend upon empirical claims that overall in the United States religious commitments have not been dogmatic and religious expression has been tolerant -- increasingly so.  This is the claim of Robert Putnam in American Grace. 

The problem is that a body of evidence is piling up that suggests that while private religious commitments  may be generally tolerant and civil, religious claims-making in the public arena is associated with intolerance and prejudice against minority religious groups and the non-religious.  In other work (under review) with a team of graduate students here at Minnesota, I show that it is also associated with a willingness to tolerate material inequality and deny civil liberties to unpopular groups.  And other analyses with Jack Delahanty and Evan Stewart (under review) show that the non-religious and members of minority religious groups knows this, and read religious expression in the public arena as exclusionary. 

It is hard to see how, in such an environment, we can continue to embrace the meta-narrative of increasing religious tolerance without emphasizing the distinction between private religious faith and public religious claims and acknowledging the exclusionary nature of the latter.