Why are Americans so religious?

At a conference in Germany a couple of years ago, a European colleague asked me, “Why are Americans so religious?”

This is a big puzzle for many Europeans. Only a few percent of people in France, Germany, and England attend church weekly. Most people in countries like France, Norway, Sweden and Denmark tell pollsters they don’t believe in God. A recent study of religion and wealth found that religious feeling was strongest in poor countries, like much of Africa, South America, South Asia and the Middle East, but weaker in rich countries, like most of Europe and Japan. Only a few outliers, like the United States and Kuwait, were both rich and religious. I told my colleague I thought it had something to do with state support for the church in Europe. In America there’s a free market for religion, so religions compete to attract members, but in Europe, many countries have state churches, which stifles competition. My colleague said this was an interesting idea, but that there wasn’t a state church in Germany, for example.

Since then, I’ve done a little more research on this. My colleague was technically right that Germany doesn’t have an official state church. But as a friend of mine who lives in Germany tells me, you do have to register with the state as a member of a church. You can register as a Catholic, or a Protestant, or a Jew (but not yet a Muslim, or a Jehovah’s Witness, or any other religion that doesn’t have official status). Your registration determines which religion classes your children attend at state schools. And when you pay your taxes, part of your taxes go towards the religious denomination for which you registered.

Other countries in Europe have similar systems, like the Church of Norway, the Church of Sweden, and so on. There’s lots of variation among countries – like the Church of England, which is an official state church, headed by the monarch, but which doesn’t receive direct financial support from the government. But insofar as churches are supported through taxes, rather than through the collection plate, the producer of the product – religious services, aid and comfort to members, and the like – depends on consumers only in an indirect, government mediated way. There’s no pressure to make services more interesting, satisfying, or enjoyable for people – and so people turn away from them in droves.

Looking again at the map of wealth and religious belief: most of the countries that are low on religious belief either have a history in which the state ruthlessly suppressed all the competitors for an official atheistic state religion (e.g., former Communist countries in Eastern Europe, revolutionary France), or are countries with some version of a state church.

And this is not a new idea. Back in 2003, the New York Times ran a story with this quote:

“”Monopolies damage religion,” said Massimo Introvigne, the director of the Center for Studies on New Religions in Turin and a proponent of the relatively new theory of religious economy. ”In a free market, people get more interested in the product. It is true for religion just as it is true for cars.””

Because there’s a vibrant free market for religion in America, religions have evolved rapidly to accommodate people’s varied and changing tastes. Numerous new denominations have either originated in America, or flourished as transplants from a hostile Old Country: Quakers, Amish, Mennonites, Southern Baptists, Pentecostals, Seventh-Day Adventists, Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Christian Scientists, Scientologists, Jedis, Pastafarians, and many more. There are denominations for everyone – conservatives, moderates, liberals, young-earth creationists, evolutionists, Calvinists, Unitarians, and pagans. As Garrison Keillor says, “My people were Puritans who came to American in the late Seventeenth Century. They came to America in hopes of discovering greater restrictions than were permissible under English law.”

Ironically, it’s this vigorous state of cultural evolution that promotes the development of churches that preach against the idea of biological evolution. But it also promotes churches that respond well to what people want – and which therefore flourish and grow. We’ve got churches where they play Bach on pipe organs and sing old hymns in four-part harmony, and churches with electric guitar bands and praise choirs, and everything in between and beyond.

Tom Lehrer addressed this back in 1965. Discussing the reforms of the Second Vatican Council, he says, “I feel that if they really want to sell the product, in this secular age, what they ought to do is to redo some of the liturgical music in popular song forms.” He then proceeds to sing his “modest example,” the Vatican Rag.

(As with so many things, what was parody in 1965 has now simply come to pass.)

With this in mind, some advice for those lobbying for more government support for religion in America (which usually means support for their own favorite brand): Be careful what you wish for. Such support is not only bad for religious freedom; it will ultimately stifle and distort whichever denominations get the support.

3 thoughts on “Why are Americans so religious?”

  1. Nice of you to weigh in, Michael. I wonder what nuance simmered below your German friend’s use of the English word ‘religious.’ You seem to conclude he’s asking about our religious ‘habits,’ e.g. church attendance, open discussion of denominational affiliation, etc. I’ve had a few of those conversations, too, over the years with Europeans (in many walks of like and professions) and often it’s often more a question like “Why do so many Americans ‘still’ believe such antiquated, ignorant, nonsense?” It’s really more an indictment of a worldview than a cultural curiosity.

    I think you’re absolutely correct in your observations of contemporary American religious consumerism. It’s a major departure from an earlier ‘marketplace of moral ideas’ that characterized our First Estate for 300 years. It’s fraught with peril, however, as it demonstrates an abdication of moral authority to the State. American Christianity is now almost wholly consumed with personal improvement, not an holistic integration of family, work, life, community in the Kingdom of God.

    I agree with your conclusion, but by way of principle, not pragmatism. A faith that bows to the King (or takes its $ to pay bills) no longer bows to the King of Kings. A truly Christian worldview creates church institutions that demand moral accountability of the State, and builds citizens that honor the government and its laws, so long as the State honors its divine mandate and respects natural law.

    I’d argue the correlation between public perception of the church as the bastion of moral authority, personal liberty and societal cohesion is much stronger than per capita GDP in the chart above. Nations that have seized the role of moral arbiters and made vassals of the clergy will naturally trend toward the bottom of the scale. There’s still a strong natural affinity in this country to the Declaration of Independence and its assertion of a created order and unalienable rights. The church is supposed to be the guardian of those principles.

  2. Bram, as far as I could tell, my colleague in Germany — who happens to be Dutch, not German — was expressing sincere puzzlement about American religious beliefs. As you know, Americans and Europeans differ greatly here, and he was wondering if I had any thoughts for why this might be the case.

    And I’m glad you agree with the general conclusion. This may be a happy case where principle and pragmatism coincide.

  3. I live in Los Angeles which has adherents of a very wide range of the world’s religions. Watching my immigrant co-workers take their children to their Buddhist church [for example] for language and culture lessons made it clear to me they relied on their religious institutions as a repository of their cultural heritage. We may all speak English and celebrate the 4th of July at work and public school but we can also celebrate our very different old country languages and cultural holidays at our religious institutions. I have come to suspect we could not be the relatively peaceful melting pot we are without religious freedom or some other set of institutions that serve the same cultural purpose. When people talk about how non-religious Europeans are they never mention religions of immigrant populations. If someone surveyed Europe’s immigrant communities for unregistered religious institutions they might find Europe is more religious than they suspect.

Comments are closed.